By Paul Lawrence
In his book ‘STORY’, Robert McKee distinguishes between ‘character‘ and ‘characterization‘. Characterization is all the stuff I make up in my head about my protagonists, the ‘checklist’, things like:
- Date and place of birth
- Parents’ background
- Marital status and children
- Defining moments
- Job history
- Financial situation
- Awards, achievements of note
- Favourite pastimes
None of this though tells me about character. Character is defined by how my protagonists respond to any given situation.
For example, Lisbeth Salander was born on April 30th 1978 to Sophia Agneta Sjölander & Alexander Zalachenko. She had no formal education and was declared mentally incompetent at an early age. She is single with no children and her defining moment was probably when she threw petrol over her father at the age of 12. None of this tells us about her character however. We find out about her character through her actions.
- When she is asked to place Mikael Blomkvist under surveillance, she finds out he is having an affair, but leaves the information out of her official report
- When she is raped, she tells no one, revisits the rapist with a taser, and tattoos “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist” across his chest
- She falls for Mikael Blomkvist, but when she sees him from afar canoodling with Erika Berger, she slips silently away and doesn’t contact him again
These are the actions that define her character. Developing strong characters lies at the heart of storytelling, indeed some would say that a story may be defined solely in terms of the character and their development over the course of the narrative.
We all have an intuitive sense of when someone is or isn’t behaving in character, a sense of when people are being authentic or phony. As writers our principal task, more important than any other, is to create ‘real’ people, living and breathing, who the reader will believe in. Characterisation is important–character is key.