I was doing a job for Weezie Jones once, a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA issue if I remember right, when I asked her about characterization. I hadn’t been hanging around Marvel for that long at that point (neither had she) but I’d become puzzled by one editor or artist or fan after another talking about this writer or that’s terrific characterization. And I’d look at the comics they talked about – and I just couldn’t see it! For the most part it was certainly better than the pure vanilla characterization you saw in most DC comics of the late ’70s, where heroes were heroes because they were good and when you’re good you become a hero and villains were bad because that’s what villains are, and in Marvel comics they didn’t editorially blot out all authorial idiosyncracies so they were more interesting, but when I looked for what, in literature classes in college, was called characterization, it just wasn’t there. At least in any broad sense. It seemed every author would seize on one little character twist, then run it on every character in their stable until became nothing more than the shtick by which that author was easily recognized. Even with the most interesting characterization, if every character in a story behaves the same, it’s not characterization.
So, at the risk of looking ignorant, I asked Weezie about it, though she’d never raved up anyone’s characterization in my presence. She took my issue of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, opened it to a certain sequence, and said, “See where this character does this in this situation, but that one does that? That’s characterization.”
Yes, it really is just that simple. Sort of.
Awhile back in this series I raised some eyebrows when I said, despite schisms imposed by generations of English teachers and literary critics, that plot and character were really the same thing. In real terms, when writing a story, they commingle to the point of inseparability, with character’s actions constantly working on the story to change the direction of the plot and the events of the plot in ways large and small constantly altering character. But in real terms we the audience never see character. Character really only exists in the author’s head.
What we see is characterization.
As nit-picky as it sounds, it’s important to understand the difference between character and characterization. Characterization is where plot and character intersect. Characterization is the expression of character through action.
Characterization is the means by which we (hopefully) convince the reader the story is actually happening about people. It’s an essential part of story logic, because it builds the logic of each character and establishes their behavioral patterns. Characters who establish their own behavioral logic and stick to it become “real.” Characters that play fast and loose with behavioral logic are little more than cartoons. A character demonstrates a mortal fear of choking to death on chicken meat. Given that premise, what strikes you as more logical and “real”: he goes into a cold sweat when his co-workers suggest lunching at Kentucky Fried Chicken, or he goes with them without a thought and chows down on a bucket of buffalo wings while discussing the latest company project?
Every movement a character makes in a story, every word, is characterization. Back when characters still smoked, I used that as an characterization example: when your character lights a cigarette, how does he do it? Matchbook? Cigarette lighter? Kitchen match struck on whatever rough surface is at hand? Does he smoke a pipe? Cigars? If cigars, stogies or cigarillos? Cigarettes? Filtered or straight? Plain or menthol? Straight up or through a cigarette holder? Each choice suggests something different about the character. In my early days at Marvel I’d make sense of characters by figuring out what music they listened to. (Hawkeye, for instance, had a massive collection of rockabilly records, which I thought said something interesting and different about his character.)
Broadly, characterization breaks down into four forms:
– big action (macrocharacterization)
– mannerism and body language (microcharacterization)
Big action is the main form of characterization in most comics: the notion, for example, that Spider-Man will smash into a room through a window without a second thought to save someone inside. But there was a time when Spider-Man would slither in through a vent window and creep along the ceilings like, oh, a spider. But everyone understands big action. It’s the action that pushes the plot along. The cowboy wears his gun low and walks out onto main street to face off against three gunmen in a showdown. It’s the most instantly apprehensible form of characterization because it’s the most blatant and the most attached to plot, but it’s also the most overtly given to stereotype: you know the cowboy’s the hero because he’s the one who walks out alone against three killers. What the perception if his behavior changes, if instead of walking out without cover onto the deserted street he hides in a bell tower or the loft of a barn, or crawls beneath the raised sidewalks of an old west town, and picks off the three killers one by one from hiding, and they never even figure out where he is? That doesn’t discount him from being the hero, but it makes him a different sort of hero (smarter, for one thing). These sound like plot concerns, but they’re really characterization. How the character behaves in the big picture is characterization. How a character behaves in any way is characterization.
Not too many comics writers concern themselves with mannerism and body language, partly because of the nature of the medium: control of those things are in the artist’s hand. But they’re of necessary consideration, as they add texture and weight to characters, distinguishing them from others. (Shared or parallel mannerisms can also be used to thematically link characters.) The clothes a character chooses to wear, or whether he bothers with personal hygiene, or whether he prefers to stand with his arms folded or his hands clasped behind his back define him as much as his willingness to leap through fire. How characters move when they walk is characterization. Everything is characterization. A trained boxer is going to move differently from a chess player, a teenage girl walking through a mall will look at different things than a 35 year old man will. On a physical level, this kind of characterization – irrelevant to the plot for the most part – defines the relationship between character and environment.
Every character in a story, even ancillary characters, needs to have some distinguishing characteristic, even if it’s only the way they stand, whether it’s the decision of the writer or the artist. The real trick to mannerism and body language, or any kind of characterization is: consistency. Once it’s established, follow it faithfully. Not that a character’s mannerisms and behavior can’t shift in the course of a story – most stories are about how characters’ behavior shifts and why – but those changes need to be properly set up and motivated, and for that to work effectively the initial characterization has to be well-established.
Background, of course, consists of the details of a character’s milieu, values and history, which are often inextricably meshed, and they all influence other aspects of characterization. Someone who grew up on a farm in backwoods Alabama’s going to have different personality tics and vocabulary (particularly unconscious or automatic slang) than someone raised in a Park Ave. high rise penthouse. Someone with seven brothers and sisters will likely have different values than an only child. As the forces that underlie personality, milieu values and history have direct effect on character and therefore characterization. It all has to be, in some form, taken into account.
The most commonly abused form of characterization in comics is dialogue, which far too often is reduced to what amounts to exposition and catch phrases. The words we use, the rhythms of our speech, our grammatical shortcuts and eccentricities, these are all part of what each of us are. It’s no different for the characters in our stories; it is the most intimate and immediate expression of their psychopathologies and thought processes. But, since dialogue serves many functions alongside characterization, it deserves a discussion of its own.
Of course, if you really need another dose of comics/culture wisdom this week, may I suggest popping over to Paper Movies to order a copy of TOTALLY OBVIOUS, my pdf e-book collection of all the essays on comics, creativity, culture and the freelance life from my previous column Master Of The Obvious. (You can read a sample while you’re over there, if you’re undecided.) 300 pages for only $5.95 – now that’s reading!
By the way, in answer to last week’s questions, the vast majority of respondents prefer a) columns not be shortened (sorry about that, but this isn’t testing the waters, I swear, it’s just the way things worked this week) and b) that I do a political blog somewhere. No decisions on the latter yet, but I might look into it when things slow down a bit, and if sales on my pdf collection of my political commentary are worth paying attention to when I release it next week.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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