Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Writing Wednesday: Shaping people - & how archetypes can (somewhat) come in handy with characters

What writer doesn't face this dilemma at some point - who is my character and what is he/she like? You might have your plot, your idea, your progression, but without your character and who he/she is, you're pretty much certain to hit against a brick wall.

Characters - they are the ones we write, who people our books. Clue here: they people the book, and as such, they need to actually be like people. Not making sense? I'll try to explain.

I remember when I was a teenager and I needed something, I'd got to my dad and ask. Well, what do you expect? Teenagers do live on daddy's money, innit? Well, I asked, and I got it.
Today, I am what is known as a housewife. I work part-time and am pretty much financially independent, but that doesn't cover every purchase I need to make. Like that new time-saving and chore-saving food processor I spotted at the shop a while back ( I did tell you, cooking and me makes three - a crowd!) So, I usually go the the hubby and ask, and I usually get what I want.

You might think I'm a man-manipulator. To a certain extent, that's true. You need to know how to tackle/handle situations. With my dad, the big-eyes-like-Puss-in-Boots-from-Shrek worked wonders. Not so with the hubby - a logical explanation and a clear balance sheet would most probably win me my endeavour. On my boys, a glare generally works.

So what am I getting at? In dealing with these 3 types of men, I am the same woman, the same character in the story of my life, but I show/use/display different facets with every one of them. I know what 'logically' works on every one of them to get me my goal.

Every life is a story in itself, and every person is the actor acting his/her part out. True - you may not always know the scenario and it's almost always improvisation. But even in improvisation, you need logic. This is no different from any story you're writing, even though you as the writer should, logically, know the scenario of your story and how your characters/actors are supposed to play their parts.

So what is logical and what's not where emotions are concerned? This is where archetypes come into play - basically models or templates of what a 'type' can entail (You can find good description of these on Tami Cowden's website). There are so many of them  - the Nurturer, the Free Spirit (heroines) - The Chief, the Professor (heroes), among others.

But these are just templates - they will give you a general idea in 2D. It's up to you to make these people 3D, to give them facets, sides, aspects: everything that usually constitutes a normal, existing person.

There is no better way to get this right than by knowing your characters.

I stress the plural on the word - knowing your main character, the heroine, is good - you know how she will act. Fine. But acting is not a one-way street, and it is always an interpersonal interaction. You act in relation to other people too. Know those other people as well as you know your heroine. Because a Nurturer is supposed to nourish around her doesn't mean she does only that. Nourishing doesn't mean that a plate of cookies or a basket of muffins solves everything and brings the solution to world peace and a happily-ever-after. And a Nurturer doesn't meet one single type of people throughout her life.

An archetype is not a person! You make that person come true!

Let's apply this to real life, taking the heroine whose archetype is the Nurturer. She is a person with a functioning brain too, and she has to see and know what is happening around her. She uses her abilities as per what the situation demands.
Thus, when she will take on the stoic banker, she will be professional, not an insipid, crying and bailing-her-heart-out wimpy creature even if that's how she feels inside because she isn't used to tackling hard situations as she always "fixes". When she takes on the tough-as-nails, cynical hero, she won't be commanding that he do this and he do that. She'll work him through emotion, through an indirect approach that will slowly work a way into his heart, because she fixes broken things and the best approach to do that is through patience and little gestures.
These are aspects/characteristics tied to a Nurturer archetype, and this is what you should be using in characterization.

Listology has a really good article on this - giving examples of every archetype out there. Check it out too and you're bound to be able to pick up more aspects of what constitutes each 'template'.

A lot of writers also work through preconceptions, stereotypes and the like as the starting point of their 'logical' approach. But this can be tricky, since preconceptions and stereotypes happen as a result of a skewed perception or of bias, which can result in over-generalization that throws your whole characterization off center. If you say that 'all men have their mind in the gutter', fine - but do make sure to know how much of your hero's mind is actually in said gutter. Another pitfall of this type of approach is that you can easily fall into the trap of surface logic and cardboard-cutout-character-logic.

Know your characters. Find everything you can about them, and let 'templates' and other such notions be a red thread guiding you on the journey. Don't make these the be-all and end-all of your characterization.

Questions are more than welcome, in the comments!

From Mauritius with love,



J Hali Steele said...

Great post, you MANipulator, you!! Seriously, good info here, Z. Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post, Z! This one rocks. You go, MANipulator (that's going to stick, you know, lol) :0D. Hugz.

Zee Monodee said...

Lol, I just grabbed myself a new nickname... Yikes!
But hey, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do! :)

Thanks for commenting, gals. Glad if the tips could help!!