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.