characterization & cheating

edelsteinBrowsing in the bookstore I came across this: The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein. (Hardcover  
ISBN: 0-89879-901-5
$18.90). In less than three hundred pages you get (just for starters):

• Profiles of 20 adult personality types, from adventurers and eccentrics to conformists and creatives
• Child and adolescent types, including descriptions of mild to extreme developmental disorders

• Typical personality traits associated with 46 different careers ranging from astronauts to social workers

My question is, does this cookbook approach really work for anybody? I’d be interested to hear from an author (if anyone would admit this) who has successfully constructed characters with a book like this. It just seems way too simplistic, or maybe I’m just too much of an A personality to take one person’s word on such a wide range of topics. For example, I’m working (in a very preliminary way) on the first stages of a character for a novel I haven’t started yet. This woman is agoraphobic. At the moment I know only very basic things about agoraphobia, but I’ll learn a lot more before I launch into writing for real. I can’t imagine how a paragraph in a how-to book could possibly be enough.

I started thinking about this in more depth after reading Joshua’s post on the complexities of post traumatic stress disorder. If you ask the average joe on the street for a definition of PTSD you’ll probably get some vague response about Vietnam vets and violence. You’ll get that response because vets/violence is the only aspect of PTSD the media has chosen to bring to your attention. But if you want to write a character who deals with PTSD and you care about things like reality and depth and complex characterization, you’re going to need to really look into this stuff, and dig far deeper than the six o’clock news. Joshua’s post touches on a lot of really interesting aspects of PTSD in a way that makes it clear that he’s thought about the issues. If he choses at sometime to write a story or novel about somebody whose life is complicated by PTSD, I imagine he’ll pull it off because he’s put in the work.

Now you might be wondering if it’s really important, and isn’t it possible to cut a few corners, now and then? Do you have to get an MD to write a story about a surgeon? Do you need to climb Everest to write about the maniac people who trudge up there trying to get by without oxygen?

There are places you can cut corners, sure, but characterization isn’t one of them. You don’t need to know how to perform bypass surgery to write about your surgeon, but you sure do need to understand what makes him visit chatrooms every free minute, where he tells everybody he’s a janitor who breeds cockatoos as a hobby. When it comes to the inner workings of the character’s mind, cutting corners is not a good idea, because believe me — readers will put up with a lot, but they will call you on it if you fumble PTSD or pretend you know what it is to be the hearing child of Deaf parents. And rightly so.

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4 Replies to “characterization & cheating”

  1. I suspect this kind of thing is meant for the very beginning writer who just has no idea what to do.

    I don’t own this one, but I did buy a book on character archetypes and myths that’s more interesting for something like this.

  2. I was half-way through a comment, then suddenly it was the kids’ bedtime and honestly I could not keep a coherent thought…so I gave up.

    But the comment lingered in my mind. Then I bought a book today, and in the preface, the author said what I had been cynically thinking: “Many people are skeptical about the motives of the individuals who write them [self-help books]. They believe that self-help authors are primarily out to help themselves make money. In addition, self-help authors are often criticized for offering overly simplistic formulas for the complex problems of daily living. I think these impressions are justifed.” The book I’m reading is titled “The Feeling Good Handbook” by David D. Burns, M.D.
    So yes, he’s talking about self-help books for anxiety or mood disorders…but this is an interesting segue and it’s definitely related to storytelling, I’d say. Dr. Burns goes on to say, “However, there are two sides to every coin, and academic researchers have begun to take a serious look at self-help books as a new form of therapy. This type of therapy is called bibliotherapy, or reading therapy.”
    My imagination is tickled by the mere existence of “bibliotherapy.” Gives new meaning to the phrase “Read a book!” Perhaps this is old hat to you and your readers. A google of “bibliotherapy” turns up lots of credible sites on the topic. Like most people, I know what to read to give me a lift (romance fiction), and I know what brings me down (Dickens) – but how did they ever get it down to a science, I wonder? Required 20th century lit courses for psych students? Interesting.

  3. Jennifer, if it is aimed at beginning writers, that’s almost worse. What a terrible way to get started, thinking you can put together a novel as if you were ordering from the ala carte menu.

    Pam, that is really interesting, and thanks for posting it. I’ll go google bibliotherapy and see what I find… and Dr. Burns gets points for acknowledging the intrinisic problem, in my estimation, at least.

  4. I actually picked up this book once and tried it. The results were extremely stilted and more than a little funny.

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