External Characterization

I’ve been pretty busy on the blogging this week.  Guess it’s because I have so much on my mind with both the release of Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest and Pacific Rim, a movie I really, really liked.

Speaking of which:

My tenth book is out in stores now, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest.  It’s really, really good, and you should buy it.  If you already have, I can only offer a sincere thank you, but with a caveat.  Have you talked your friends into buying it?  Maybe that’s a bit too much to ask, but, hey, nobody said being in the A. Lee Martinez Action Force wasn’t going to come with certain responsibilities.  So maybe you don’t have to put any pressure on your friends, but if you should happen to drop my name in conversation, all casual like, it’d be much appreciated.  Though, as always, your level of commitment to the Action Force is entirely up to you.

Also, in a less self-promotional moment, you should really go see Pacific Rim.  I know I keep pushing this movie, which is unusual for me, but it just hits so many of my sweet spots (kaiju, giant robots, original material, fun, and heartfelt) that I can’t stop myself.  I won’t dwell on it too long, but I will say Del Toro is a true master of filmmaking in a way even many talented filmmakers aspire to be.  The guy understands story, characters, action.  And even more rare, he gets special effects.  He neither fears them nor slavishly fawns over them.  Del Toro instills even his giant robots and monsters with more personality than most filmmakers can manage with flesh-and-blood characters.

The whole thing reminds me a bit of why I enjoyed Real Steel so much.  We’ve been taught to think that characterization is an internal process, that to truly give someone life we must know what motivates and compels them.  And it’s a good rule of thumb.  But there’s also another kind of characterization that is too often overlooked.  Let’s call it External Characterization, and it boils down to what a character does and how they do it.

This is why the robots in both Real Steel and Pacific Rim brim with so much life.  Though they are machines and not even technically intelligent machines like Transformers or Wall-E, they exude external personality.  It’s in stuff as basic as their posture, the way they move, their silhouettes, how they’re put together.  It is one of the most undervalued aspects of storytelling.

It is one of the big advantages visual storytelling has over the pure written word.  I love that when I write novels, I am unconstrained by the visual aspect, but the visual aspect is a great tool for making a great character.  I can play with that certainly, and if I’m paying attention, it is an important part of the character.  But I can also ignore it if I choose and sometimes play that to my advantage.

Not so in movies, comic books, etc.  The visual is such a vital tool and yet so often overlooked.  External character development can give your characters a hell of a lot of life, and it can so at a glance, which is a powerful tool available to the storyteller.  Using the Pacific Rim example, because it really applies here, just having the bulky brawler Cherno Alpha standing beside the sleek, gleaming Crimson Typhoon, you immediately get a sense of how these two characters (for lack of a better word) function and fight.  And that’s not an accident.  That’s a very deliberate choice.

It is an underrated and often overlooked element of visual storytelling, and it is what marks Del Toro as a master of the art form.  He gets just how important visuals can be, how they can inform when done right, and how, while talking is a great way of exploring characters, it isn’t the only way.  Sometimes, the best way to get to know a character is to watch them in action.  It’s just too bad that we often overlook this because we’ve been trained to assume that dialogue is all important.

But, really, actions can speak louder than words.  And I don’t care when Superman pouts in the crumbling ruins of Metropolis if five minutes later, he’s all chuckles and one-liners.  The action defines him, not how much he says he feels bad about it.  To put it another way, “Don’t have your characters just say how they feel.  That makes me feel angry.”

Of course, the problem with actions is, ironically, they often get ignored in favor of what a character says, and that’s not much different than real life.  It seems as if it’s often better to have a character say something about his emotions than to display it in their actions.  Having a character say, “I feel sad” is hard to miss.  Having  a character actually be sad is both difficult to portray and often irritating to the audience.  As a professional novelologist, I’ve grown to accept this, and I’ve even taken to putting more effort in outright declaring what my characters are feeling in hopes of avoiding be perceived as shallow.  Strangely, it feels more shallow to me to have a character just outright say what they’re feeling, but then I realize it’s not a question of more or less subtlety.  It’s just about being sure the audience notices what you’re putting out there, which is kind of the point of telling a story in the first place.

So, yes, if you have a choice, always say what the character is feeling.  It’s just going to work better.  But there’s no reason to neglect the unspoken aspects of the character, and perhaps the best synergy of this is found in stories that do both.

Overall, I feel positive about that notion.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 12, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    In writing critique groups there’s always this noise about “showing versus telling.” I’ve never understood the people who say dialog is showing. How is dialog not telling? My simplistic logic is what’s another word for “to say?” To TELL! That’s not rocket science, is it?

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