Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Full Fathom 

By 
Peggy Kurilla

2003, Peggy Kurilla 

s writers, we are often more affected by the entertainment we select than most people.   We constantly note, analyze, dissect, juggle, and otherwise play with everything we watch on television, in the movies or at the kids' school play.  Unfortunately, new writers tend to use these forums as their learning grounds, and that can lead to an incomplete education. 

We can learn a lot from movies and television shows, most notably about plotting and scene structure, but these media fall short when it comes to depicting in-depth characters.  "Tea, Earl Grey, hot," is a character quirk, not characterization.  Yes, a few things can be inferred about a man who orders such tea, but those things are surface only: he is comfortable with himself and his preference, and possibly he is more reflective than someone jazzed on caffeine.  He may also be British.

Given the episodic and continuing nature of television, the characters are not given a chance to grow, develop, and change.  Hawkeye Pierce, for example, was the same person throughout all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H.  J. R. Ewing stayed the same conniving skunk throughout Dallas.  (Note: In recent years, some series have begun offering an ongoing or continuous storyline.  Babylon 5 started the trend, and Dark Angel, Alias, and Taken have followed.  These remain the exception rather than the rule, however.) 

However in printed fiction, , except for the shortest short stories, characters usually must grow, develop, and change.  That, after all, is why most readers pick up the book.  So how can we, as writers, break away from the surface characters depicted in most television shows?  How can we create the deeper characters required by printed fiction? 

Ironically, a movie gives us one place to start.  "Character," said John Lithgow's character in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, "is what you are in the dark."  Given that particular character and that particular movie, he might have been referring to doing things during a power outage.  As a writer, though, I hear that line and immediately think of the dark nights that try our souls. 

We've all had them, whether a bout of depression following the death of a loved one, or having to make the decision to allow someone else to die gently and without extreme intervention, or even having to come back ourselves from the brink of the abyss.  When we put our characters in those same dark situations, we gain a better understanding of them.

Whether your story calls for it or not (and why doesn't it?), run your character through the most trying time you can imagine.  What does he or she finally decide to do, why, and how does he or she arrive at that decision?  Write the scene, or jot some notes, or just play the scene over and over in your head until you understand that part of your character completely.  Then, whether or not you include that exact scene in your story, the depth of your character will show up in unexpected places.

Okay, now that we've explored the darkness, let's step into the light.  Suppose your character just inherited (or won) half of Bill Gates' fortune.  Let's make it a nice, round number: Twenty billion U.S. dollars.  After the shock wears off, what does he do?  Does he quit his job in a, shall we say, colorful fashion?  Does he give it all to charity?  Does he send part of it to the IRS with a note stating that this should cover all of his taxes owed for the rest of his life and please to stay off his back?  Does he become an Ebenezer Scrooge and hoard it all?

Again, run through this scene, on paper or in your head, until you're happy with it.

Finally, let's split the extremes.  We've explored your character in the depths of darkness and in the light of abundance.  Now, let's explore a "day in the life."  What does your character do when there are absolutely no demands on her?  Suppose for this exercise that your character has the necessary funds to do whatever she wants--i.e., traveling halfway round the world for lunch is do-able.  Does she breakfast in Paris, lunch in London, then enjoy dinner and a Broadway play in New York?  Does she strap herself into her starfighter and take out two dozen of the enemy, just for the target practice?

Once you're satisfied with this exercise, sit back and relax.  You now have snapshots of your character and his reactions in different situations.  You can use that information to add depth and texture to the rest of your story.  You know how your character thinks in adverse situations, as well as during those times that things go right for him, and those times when nothing particularly exciting is going on.  Even if you never use the scenes you crafted in this exercise in your story, you'll feel them resonating within you as your write other scenes--and the reader will get hints at depths we haven't seen yet.

Once we have a feel for the depth of your character, those quirks mentioned earlier take on a new significance.  A quirk may be the result of something traumatic that happened before, or it may be eliminated completely during the course of your story as your character reacts to the trying times you put him through.  Quirks become a highlight for nuances of character, not a substitute for character itself.