Practical fiction writing: Characterisation | Sylvia Bishop | Skillshare

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Practical fiction writing: Characterisation

teacher avatar Sylvia Bishop, Author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (53m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Using behaviour rules

    • 3. Conversational style

    • 4. Life scripts

    • 5. Rules that matter

    • 6. Some last advice...

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About This Class

In this class, I teach my favourite way of approaching characterisation: finding 'behaviour rules' for your characters. My aim is to sharpen your observational skills, helping you to break down how people actually behave, instead of only seeing the overall impression that they give.

Meet Your Teacher

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Sylvia Bishop



Hi! I'm Sylvia. I write junior fiction for a living, and I've been published in 17 countries by major publishing houses. All that writing is lovely, but I do also like to talk to other humans sometimes, so I teach too.

My aim is always to teach practical, enjoyable tools, that are hopefully a little different to the things you might have already seen in how-too books - just to keep things fresh. I hope you'll join me!

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1. Introduction: Hi, I'm Sylvia Bishop. I write junior fiction for a living. I've published in 17 countries with several major publishing houses. Alongside this, I love to teach writing and I'm always aiming to bring you guys a practical tool. that I have found unblocks writer's block and elevates your writing. I want you guys to write well; I also want you to enjoy writing and sometimes we forget that bit. So those are my two aims in every class. Welcome to my class on characterization in fiction. By the end of this class, you will have fleshed out the core cast for your novel or your short story. So this course is ideal if you have a list of the characters that you know need to be in your story, but you don't really know who they are as people yet. I think of this as the casting process. You're trying out different characters until you find the one you like. If you don't have a novel, or a story that you're working on right now, you don't have a list of characters, you can just do these exercises for any old characters. It might help you if you give them a story job - so they're the detective in a crime novel, or the parents in a family drama. just to give you something to work with. There are lots of different ways of developing characters. I'm going to teach you my favorite, and in this introductory video, I'll give you the quick pitch for why I think this is a great way to go about it. But at the end, in the last class of the course, I will do like a lightning tour of other characterization advice that's out there that might help you guys going forward. So in this course, I'm going to be asking you to try out behavior rules, simple one-line directives for how your character behaves. You'll write "audition scenes" where you follow these rules religiously, to help you find the characters fast. Then we'll look at how you can use them more skillfully in your final prose. Okay, so here's an example. Let's say, you know, your story needs to feature your protagonist's boss. Now suppose I gave your boss character this rule: Interrupt someone every time they speak. If you start to imagine this scene, you can't help justifying this rule. Maybe you are imagining someone overbearing and domineering, or maybe you're imagining someone really hyperactive and excitable. There's a lot of different possibilities. But you automatically probably picked one. Now if I add just one more rule, it forces our imagination even further. So let's say as well as always interrupting people, this boss: Only ever asks questions. So every time they speak, they interrupt someone and they ask a question. To me that instantly create someone hostile who thinks everyone else is an idiot, demanding things from them and then cutting them off before they've had a chance to answer. But maybe you thought of someone nervous and flustered and every reply they get only provokes. another question, and more panic. Again, there's lots of different alternatives, but you can't avoid starting to think of something. And this is the power of starting with behavior rules. This is how we meet people in real life, we see behavior and we try to work out what that behavior means. Psychologists call this process attribution. We're more likely to think that behavior means something constant about a person. So if I see someone shouting, I'm more likely to think they're an angry person than that they are a nice person in an angering situation. Incidentally, we tend to do the reverse for ourselves. But anyway, this is called the fundamental attribution bias. This process of attribution is something that everyone does differently depending on their experience and how their brain is wired. But we all, regardless of how we do this process, only ever see behavior. Behavior is where we start in the world. So I like to start from behavior in writing for three reasons. First, it forces you to make fresh, accurate observations. Often we'll meet someone and form the impression that they're snide or friendly or boorish. And we couldn't really tell you afterwards why. So when we come to write somebody who is snide or friendly or boorish we;re forced to rely on cliches, instead of going back to what we actually saw. I think of this process assimilar to an artist learning to see what colors and shades are really there instead of the sort of summary version that their brain has come up with; in the same way you're trying to learn to see how people are actually behaving and not just to remember what you felt about them afterwards. Second reason, it works with your brain instead of against it. If I tell you that someone is an introvert, it's actually quite difficult to figure out what they'll do next. Firstly, because there are loads of options and other factors at play, but secondly, because it's not what we're set up to do. Whereas if I give you their behavior, as we saw earlier, your brain will go overtime for you to try and work out what kind of person they are. So the first way of doing things, I kinda think it's a recipe for writer's block. Whereas the second way we'll tap into ideas that almost feel like they came from outside you. Okay, my third and final reason, it stops you knowing things about your characters that the reader doesn't. If you start with behavior, then you meet the characters in the same order that we do. It's no good your character having some incredibly interesting backstory Ii it's not actually that are on the page, and it can result in the writer thinking that character is a lot more interesting than the reader thinks they are. Believe me, it happens. Okay, so that's my pitch. I hope you guys will join me. In the next class we'll be looking at how to use these rules effectively. What's the actual process? And then we'll start looking at where you can find productive rules that will bring your character to life. I'll be drawing on conversational analysis, transactional analysis,and some theory from theatre. What you guys need is a list of the characters you want to work on and something to write with. Great, I'll see you there. 2. Using behaviour rules: Welcome back. In this first class, I'll talk a little more about what a behavior rule is and how we're going to be using them. So what is a behavior rule? Rules can really be anything about how a character exists in the world, including, for example, how they speak. We'll look at conversational style in depth later, but this might include say, swears once every time they speak, or never completes the sentence, or always asks a question. How they move. This might be a rule that applies to all their movements, like: moves like a dancer, or that describes their habitual movements, like: hits the table every time they speak. What they speak about. Okay, there's a lot to unpack here. Some might be very unsubtle, but a lot of fun, like talks about their stamp collection every time. Or it might be something a bit more incisive that wouldn't be incredibly obvious if you met that person in real life, like, mentions someone who isn't in the room every time they speak. And that might conjure up a busy body or a gossip, or just somebody who's very sociable and busy ,depending how you use it. So there's loads we can do with what people speak about. What people do. And this can be big or small. So at the small end, maybe they tidy something three times every scene. Or at a slightly middling pitch, maybe every scene their priority is to look after the baby, or maybe we see them sacrifice something every scene we see them in. So this can be at the level of small habits or big decisions. What they feel. What they feel - maybe they always think bad things or someone else's fault or everything makes them irritable, or they always feel like they're being left out. Now obviously, these aren't discrete categories. What people think and feel leads into what they do and what they say. Which of them you'll choose to focus on depends a lot on your authorial voice. But this is hopefully giving you a sense of the scope: if it describes everything about the way a person habitually is in the world. You can use it as a character rule. That does beg the question though, what is a good character rule? Not all rules are good. It's satisfying for a reader if your rule feels grounded in genuine observation of reality, that doesn't mean you can't exaggerate and we will come on to that later. But the thing that is exaggerated should feel true. There's a really simple test for this: if it makes it easier to write the scene, it's a genuine observation of how people behave. If it makes it harder, it's not. Let's look at a couple of examples. So we've got two rules here. Fiddles with their ring every time they speak, and lifts their hat every time they speak. I had a really quick go and the first one just wrote itself. "Good morning," I said. "Good morning," she replied. It felt like a question, as though she was waiting for me to confirm that it was a good morning. She twisted the gold band on her finger nervously. "Thank you for coming in," I said, and I tried to give a reassuring smile, but she only twisted that damned band faster than ever as she told me that it was no problem, which was obviously a lie. "I expect you're wondering why I called." "Yes." twist, twist. So automatically this person came to me as being nervous, reticent, they weren't going to say much. I had go with the second rule and it just didn't do the same for me. So I got "Good morning," I said. "Good morning." she replied with a genteel lift of her hat. "Thank you for coming in." "My pleasure." She tipped her hat once more. So I guess the rule suggested genteel and the formal register of 'my pleasure', but I felt really stuck. It was hard to write and the effect isn't satisfying because it's just not something that people do. Now that's quite an extreme example, but it's a useful test to just bear in mind as you're trying out all these different rules. To recap, then a good rule is one that's grounded in good observation. And you will be able to tell because it will make it easier to write, not harder. And the rest of this course, we'll be looking at how to find these productive rules, how to get better at observing people. But first in the rest of this class, I'll talk quickly about how to apply them. So how can you use rules in your process? That will be the focus of this course. We'll be writing auditions scenes where you take two rules, smash them together, and try a really quick scene to see what character it produces and whether you like the result. These are for your sketchbook and in these it helps to follow the rules all the time, like robotically. So when you develop a rule, you'll include a frequency like every time they speak, X times a scene. So 2, 3, 4 times a scene. Or maybe never, if you're banning a character from doing something that most people would normally do, like never looking at the other character or never responding directly to what is said to them. So these audition scenes are the focus of the course. I am absolutely not expecting you to spend the rest of the writing process counting how many times a scene someone does something, or literally only ever letting them ask questions. I'm hoping in this process you will have found the character and the voice and they'll have started to come to life for you, and you can be less rigid. It is still a valid question though, in good, good prose, good characterization, how often should we repeat a character's tag or their pattern behavior? And it's not a question with a straightforward answer because it is dependent on your voice. So let's take a quick look at this. How should use rules in my prose? I love this James Wood quote on character, I think it's really important. The reality level differs from author to author, and our hunger for the particular depth or reality level of a character is tutored by each writer and adapts to the internal conventions of the book. I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions. So how often should you use the rules? It depends on your depth of characterization as an author and your voice, but you have to decide what you're doing so that you can teach us. So let's take a look at that decision-making, which I tend to think of on this scale. And on the left there, we've got people in real life. Now in real life there's a whole lot of white noise. People who feel like they complain all the time, don't really complain all the time because there's so much else they need to say and do literally just to function. So most writers will be exaggerating behavior slightly, and that's really important. The illusion of reality still comes from this slight stylization and exaggeration. And the result, if what has been aimed for is a life-like impression, is what we call realism. Then as we turn the dial up, we move into caricature and comic. Now I am not saying that this is worse. Personally, I'm, I'm quite far in to caricature when I write. Realism is fashionable, as are sort of character-driven stories. But plenty of the literary greats are further up the scale. Look at the supporting cast in any Jane Austen novel. Look at any character in a Dickens novel. So this isn't a scale of better to worse. It's a matter of tone. So there's a couple of things you can do that will move you to the right along this curve. The first is to exaggerate the behavior. A good example is Marvin, beloved miserable robot from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. His role is just to complain, but his complaints are way beyond realistic complaints in casual conversation. Here's a typical quote: pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don't know why I bother to say it. Oh God, I'm so depressed. Now. I know complainers, but no one who would just throw that off in a casual conversation. It's an exaggeration. You can also move to the right by exaggerating consistency. And in fact, this is a really quick, effective shortcut to comedy. Here's the blue caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, following the rule, disagree with the last thing said, I can't explain myself. I'm afraid sir, said Alice, because I'm not myself. You see. I don't see, said the caterpillar. I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly, Alice replied very politely, for I can't understand it myself to begin with. And being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing. It isn't, said the caterpillar. Perhaps you haven't found it yet, said Alice, but when you have to turn into a chrysalis, you will someday, you know, and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel a little queer, won't you? Not a bit, said the caterpillar. Now, this is not exaggerated behavior. I know people who are willing to be this blunt, but it is exaggerated consistency. No one contradicts every single sentence back-to-back. And it's a really quick way to comic characters. If you watch any sitcom, the characters probably have a few rules or gains that they're following, and they do it far more than anybody would in real life. So here's our scale again. And the question is where you want to sit. To get characters across to readers, you're going to need to exaggerate either degree or consistency a little bit beyond real life. But how far you want to turn that dial up is a matter of your personal style. One other thing to note is that as a general rule of thumb, you're going to want your minor characters to sit slightly to the right of your major characters. One last thing to consider is how much you comment in your authorial voice, because it will affect what rules you can comfortably use. So if we go back to that ring twisting scene again, I automatically put this in a grumpy first-person voice because in order to allow the ring-twisting rule to come out, I was going to need to tell you about the ring-twisting. I needed a narrator who would actually make that kind of comment. This is not true of all rules. The rule complains every time they speak or only ever says five words at a time is self-evident. It, it would just be shown to the reader when you present the speech and the events that happen. So you need to think a little bit about what your voice is like. Personally, I write in quite an intrusive third person. I'm a very sort of present narrator. And so it's very natural in my voice to comment on things like the pitch at which someone speaks or the little gestures and ticks they have. If you write more sort of cinematically, you're presenting a world but you're making yourself as a writer very invisible, it's going to be hard for you to use these kind of rules, and you're going to want to focus on the rules that can be more easily dramatized. You probably don't need to worry about this in advance. You will find out for yourself which rules feel natural as you are using them, and which don't. It's just something to remember if a rule really isn't working for you, that might be why. So to recap: to develop characters, use rules with robotic consistency in an ;audition scene'. To write realistic characters, slightly exaggerate how or how often people behave a certain way. Then after you exaggerate either of these things more, you become increasingly comic. Rules that require authorial description, again, better suit these intrusive authorial voices that tend to comment on that kind of thing. Rules that can simply be shown happening suit all authorial voices. That's all on this for now. In the final class we'll have a few parting tips on characterization advice from other schools, things to think about as you write up. But in the next class we'll get started finding productive rules and I'm going to be looking at conversational style and conversational analysis, which is one of my favorite things. So I will see you there. 3. Conversational style: Welcome back. So it's time to start finding rules now that you can use to cast your novel. And today is going to be all about conversational style, which is how people talk. We all have a style when we talk. And it's a huge part of the impression that we give people. It's been studied by psychologists and sociologists, but mostly linguists. Conversational style is the reason that someone only has to say "Pleasure to meet you", and we already know whether we think they're friendly or shy or aloof. It's not what they said, it's how they said it. So today I'll talk you through four areas that make up our conversational style, our paralanguage, our language, our turn-taking and our listening. This is all in your downloads, so no need to take notes. Okay, first, paralanguage. This is everything that's going on when we speak other than the words we actually say. So here I've listed some of the things that vary between people and make up a big part of how we come across. So the pitch, intonation and speed of your speech, hesitation noises or pauses, like how often you pause and for how long and where. Gesture. So this can be body focused, which is like scratching your head or jiggling your leg. Or semantic focused, which means it relates to what you're saying. So maybe you point a lot or you do that thing where you sort of conduct with your hands while you talk. And finally, what you do with your face. So as in, like, some people who permanently smile or who raise their eyebrows sarcastically every other comment. A big part of this is gaze, where you look and how often you look away. Okay, next up, language. Lexicon covers anything about your word choice. Some people use a lot of slang, some people use a lot of long words, etc. And people vary in how often they use "I", "we" or "you". Try giving a character the the rule of saying "we" every time they speak and see what happens, you'll see how powerful this kind of thing can be. Hedging is anything that softens what you're saying and backs down on it. So like, sorry, maybe, I think, do you think, possibly... And people vary in how often they use different grammatical forms. So some people ask a lot of questions, other people give out a lot of imperatives, like commands. Some people use a lot of incomplete sentences and so on. Okay, two down, two to go. Turn-taking. Turn-taking is my favorite thing, guys. Honestly, maybe it's the least useful in books, but it's useful in life. This is how you'd know that someone else has finished talking and it is your turn to talk. It turns out we vary wildly on this and it's a big part of why people do or don't get on. So people have different ideas about how long they should speak for when it was their turn. And actually that is a very useful one to write with, give people different amounts of space. Whether they need to finish their sentence grammatically in order to finish a turn, how long you need to pause to show that you've finished speaking. Turns out we vary wildly on this and it's why some people feel interrupted and other people feel that no one else ever talks. And then what paralinguistic signs you might use to show that you haven't finished talking. So for example, some people, even when they pause, do this like hand rotating thing to show they're not done, that kind of thing. Oh, and finally, what people think is a cue to start speaking. Some people will wait for a question or an invitation before they believe it's their turn to speak and they will wait for hours. And our fourth and final category, the things you do while you listen to someone else, backchannels, are just 'mm', 'yeah' noises that you make while somebody else is still talking. They're not interruptions, they're just your little supportive noises, Facial expression. Most people have habitual listening faces and somewhere they put their gaze. And supportive interruptions are something we all do to different degrees. So for some people, quote unquote interrupting to agree or to quickly summarize what's just been said is to show your enthusiasm not to take the floor. And other people don't do that at all. Again, be really careful putting these into your writing. People do backchannels all the time. We don't want to write every single "Mm" and "yeah" they say, but if somebody has an unusual habit of listening and you draw our attention to that, that can be effective. Okay, so how does all this translate into character rules? Well, let's look at a couple of examples. Think of someone you know, who is boring to talk to because they make you feel like you can't get in edgeways. Now there are a lot of different ways to be boring. But here are some suggestions that jumped out to me. In paralanguage speed, they talk really slowly, hesitations, they take long pauses. And gaze: they don't look at you while they talk. That makes someone feel very excluded. In language they use "I" every time they speak. Never "we" or "you", or in turn-taking, maybe they take a turn that is much longer than anyone else. Incidentally, for anyone who's hoping on tips to not be boring, the bad news is that this is all relative. Slow speakers like other slow speakers, fast speakers like other fast speakers and so on. The good news as a writer is that if you say someone talks slowly, everybody will assume you mean relative to them. It's a very democratic world in writing. So here, I've translated that into some possible rules you could use. Notice a difference in phrasing between the rules you can just dramatize and the rules you have to draw attention to in your description. That's a distinction we made earlier and it will affect your voice. So we might say they speak slowly and you're going to draw attention to that three times in every scene. Or they pause once every time they speak, or they look into the middle distance and you'll draw attention to that three times in the scene. Or they use "I" at least twice every time they speak, or they say at least four sentences every time they speak. So you can see how we're turning these component parts of conversational style into rules that we can use to write these audition scenes for our characters. Okay, let's take one more example of picking apart how the impression we get of someone comes from the style elements. So let's take patronising adult talking to a child. Looking at paralanguage, I think they probably speak high pitched and slow, and smile all the time. I'm lexicon that I'd imagine there's a lot of "we" - that whole "how are we today?" thing. And questions, annoying questions that children never actually want to answer. In turn-taking, they would always complete their turns. Adults don't trail off when they're patronising children because they're not talking naturally, they're performing. And maybe they don't really listen. Their "mms" are randomly timed or their gaze is somewhere else. So feel free to just pick and mix from this table. I've been kind of working backwards from an impression, but you can just layer two rules together and see what happens. The need to justify it can be surprisingly productive. Let's take pitch and lexicon. I'm going to say someone who speaks at a high pitch and uses a fancy lexicon. Let's say my rule is they use two technical terms every time they speak. For me, I've instantly imagined an excitable Professor type. They are slightly annoying, but probably basically nice. Okay, someone who says "you" every time they speak and takes very short terms, let's say my rule is they say no more than five words every time they speak. That's somebody who wants someone else to do all the talking. You've got to decide for yourself whether they're shy or grumpy, or eager to please, there's a few different ways that you could play that. Or let's say someone whose gaze is off to the left, and they need to be asked a question before they will start a turn, so they won't speak unless asked directly. That instantly to me is somebody distracted and dreamy and already my brain is wondering why they're distracted, and if something is worrying them. So for our first attempt at casting, I want you to sketch very quick scenes for your characters where you try out pairs of rules from this table. So pick anything on the table, develop a rule and smash them together and see what happens. Remember these are just for your sketchbook, your consistency dial is turned up to maximum so that you can find the characters fast, and you're finding out which ones work in your authorial voice and what you enjoy, which create characters that interest you. Here's that table once again but it will be in your Download. Good luck. I'll see you next time where we'll be looking at transactional analysis. What people do, and what they say when they speak. See you there. 4. Life scripts: Hi, welcome back. So last time we looked at rules for people's conversational style. Today we'll be looking at rules for the substance of what they say and what they do. You'll notice I've put what they say and what they do together. And that's because for our purposes speaking is just a kind of doing. Speeches is action. Choosing to say that someone's hat looks stupid or apologize to them profusely for nudging them or tell them all about your stamp collection are all actions that make up your character just as much as choosing to collect those stamps in the first place, or knock somebody's hat off their head. It's just a way of interacting with other people in the world, and they can be summed up by the same kind of rules. So what are these rules? There are patterns to how people behave, and understanding these patterns is really the domain of Social Psychology. Today I'm going to look particularly at an idea from transactional analysis. You didn't have to agree with transactional analysis to find this useful. The thing about social psychology theories that is handy for writers is, they wouldn't have got off the ground if they didn't at least roughly describe how people behave, they might get the mechanisms and the exact categories wrong. But psychologists have spent a lot of time observing people and we can definitely borrow from that. Okay, So the transactional analysis idea is that we all have a life script about ourselves that we are trying to maintain. You can think of this as a rule that we are trying to be x kind of person or not be x kind of person. So we believe we're good person or a generous person, or that we're a boring person or a shy person. And that belief is something that we maintain in the way that we act and speak. There's a very similar idea to this put across again by James Wood in How Fiction Works, and he puts it like this. A character's leitmotif tells us something true about them. If they are keeping up appearances, maintaining the public fiction of themselves. This is what makes it an interesting vivid use of leitmotif. The character whose leitmotif reveals nothing subtle about them is boring, but it is not the consistency which makes him boring. To this I would just add that a public fiction isn't just for show. We are maintaining our idea of ourselves to ourselves as much as to anyone else. But otherwise, I think this hits the nail on the head. We want to see those pattern behaviors that really get to the heart of who somebody is trying to be, who they think they are. Okay, what kind of rules are there governing people's life scripts. Well, I'm going to borrow from classic transactional analysis paper by Golding and Golding. This is cited in your downloads. And here are the injunctions and drivers that they think govern our life scripts. So for transactional analysis, these would be rules that we learned before the age of seven based on what got us attention, preferably positive, from our caregivers. So say we were rewarded for being quiet or given attention when we were sick, we will have internalized being unimportant or unwell as our preferred roles in life. Again, it doesn't matter if you agree with this theory. It just matters that the rules are useful. Let's go through this list. Don't be or don't exist. So for the child who was encouraged to be seen and not heard. Don't be you - commonly your sex, if a parent wanted a daughter or son and encouraged that aspect of their child's sense of self. Don't be a child. The children who were expected to take on responsibility very young. Don't grow up - the inverse. And don't do anything: very risk averse parenting, Don't make it, don't be successful. You get that sometimes out of jealous families. Likewise, don't be important. Don't belong is an interesting one, choosing to keep ourselves separate from groups. Likewise, slightly different because it's about individuals rather than groups - don't be close to other people, to anyone. And don't be well, if you've got a lot of attention for being sick more or otherwise unwell, then that can become your more comfortable position. Don't think - don't think for yourself, just follow the rules. Where any kind of deviation has been discouraged. Or don't feel, don't display your feelings. On the other side of the coin drivers to be perfect - often that's in a particular domain, be it perfect grades or perfect morality... Be strong, try hard, please people, and hurry up - which I think is a really interesting one. It's less intuitive, but I definitely have a little bit of that in me, and know people who do - that when they feel out of control. they think if they just do everything twice as fast, it will be fine. So this is just like a starting set of ideas about the kind of things that people try to be in their lives. And let's look at how that affects how people speak first. So here are four people giving the same information, the information that they have worked in a school for 10 years. Somebody who's driver is, sorry, injunction is don't be important. Might say, I've never had the gumption to leave our little team. It's been ten years now. Somebody who's following don't grew up, might say ten years. It gives me another ten and I might grow some ambition and leave this lot behind for a proper job. Or not! Don't belong. I've taught here for 10 years. It's convenient for me and a decent enough school. So they're keeping themselves at a remove. Or try hard: I've been a teacher here for ten years. Let me tell you it's a daily battle. God, I don't know how we're still standing some days. So they are always affirming the fact that they're somebody who is trying very hard. Okay, so that's speech. Now let's think about how it would affect their actions. Who would go for a promotion, for example. Clearly not, don't be important or don't grow up. Try hard definitely would. Don't belong is an interesting case. It depends. Would going for promotion make them feel separate to the group or would it actually be an investment in the group that they would want to stay away from? So you can see how these rules can quickly produce some quite lifelike ideas about how people will speak and behave. You can layer them to get interesting results. Here's a couple of examples. Suppose we took don't be well and be strong. There is a very famous character in some very serious literature who follows these rules. Eeyore always feels hot dog by and out of sorts. But he also always makes clear that he's not complaining and is bearing things nobly. Here's a typical quote: It isn't so hot in my field about three o'clock in the morning as some people think it is. In fact, Christopher Robin, he went on in a loud whisper, quite between ourselves and don't tell anybody, it's cold. So he's constantly maintaining that he's not well, but also that he is being strong. And that makes him really memorable and charming and funny. Um, I had a quick go at one myself to show you how this could play out. So I took be perfect and don't belong. And here's the result. Notice, by the way, that you could also know this person takes long turns and uses "we" every time she speaks. I've had be perfect play out through her attitude to exercise and walking and don't belong through her attitude to the village. So it's a quick sketch. The countryside here, It's very beautiful, Anne began. isn't it, cried Sarah, we go walking every day, every single day rain or shine. How lovely Oh it is. And you know, we never see another soul from the village out walking, do we JOhn? John shook his head. No, never. We can't understand it. People around here just seem to want to drive into town or I'll stay at home, but we walk every day no matter what. Okay. Those are my examples. Now it's your turn. So for the second round of auditions, you want to take rules from this list of injunctions or drivers. There's nothing to stop you taking two from the injunctions or two for the drivers. You might want to be more specific. What do they try to be perfect in, for example? And play around with what they mean for your characters. If you can think of any other "be this" rules you want to try it at this point, be my guest and I will see you next time. 5. Rules that matter: Welcome back. So, so far we've begun breaking down people's behavior into component parts that you can start watching for. We've looked at conversational style and at the scripts, the life scripts that people might be maintaining. In this class, we're going to talk about finding the rules that matter to your story. Whether you're using your character's voice or your own voice, what you notice about people will be defining of that voice. Somebody who notices all the rules of class behavior and exactly what social class someone is putting across, is very different to somebody who notices all the emotional tells and the ways in which people repress sadness. Both would be two very different narrative voices with different concerns at the heart of the novel. So when you're picking your character rules, it can be really useful to start from what concerns you. So I'm going to look at a couple of examples of theorists who started with an impression they're interested in and broken that down into behavior. And then we'll look a bit more about doing that from a fiction perspective. So we're going to start with the godfather of improvised comedy and improvised theater. A man called Keith Johnston. One of his big concerns with social status, he thought that in any interaction we are claiming a status for ourselves, high or low. This isn't the same as your official status. You can have a low status king. A classic example would be Jeeves and Wooster, where Jeeves is the Butler. He's technically the servant, but he's the high status character in that pair. It's also not about being nice. You can be nice high status. That's a sort of magnanimous, generous person. Now Keith Johnston is famous for this concept because he broke it down into the behaviors that give us these final impressions, and people found that when they applied them on stage, the results were instant and very lifelike. So let's take a look at a list of those high status behaviors. Here we go. They hold their head still, they maintain eye contact. They occupy the space as they please. So they will come as close to you if they like, it's up to them if they stand or sit down. They complete their sentences, they might interrupt the sentences of others. They make very few hesitant noises or caveats. They either ignore the other person or they provide them with the social cue that it's their turn to speak. So they asked the questions or make it very clear that it's your turn now. And they don't defer to any social cues that are offered to them. We can keep going. Not all high status people do all of these, but they're an interesting start. To see why any of them work. Just try and imagine doing them in a job interview, if you were the interviewee. It would be very odd for you to touch your interviewer or choose to pace the room instead of staying in your chair or be the one to start asking questions and giving social cues. On the other hand, it's common advice to keep still and maintain eye contact so that you look confident. If you write a story in which all your character rules were about status behavior, that's going to be a story that is interested in social hierarchy. And that's going to come across really strongly, even if you never comment on it directly as a writer. We could also bring in some "B x" style rules here. Be strong or don't be a child, might be kind of high status drivers and injunctions. On the other hand, don't be, and don't be important, belong to sort of comfortable low status players. Okay, let's try another one. So same idea. We're gonna go from concern about our end result and break it down into behaviors. This is Deborah Tannen. She wrote the brilliant book. That's not what I meant, which has a lot more on the conversational style we were doing earlier. And one of her concerns in this book is how everything we say implies either involvement or independence. We're constantly trying to get the balance right between these two. This is easier to see if you imagine how weird it would be to suddenly use formal register with your mum, or on the other hand, how strange it would be for someone you just met to start asking you for advice about their love life. There are tacit rules about what shows you're close to someone and what shows you are independent of them. We become most aware of it when it's contested, right. Where maybe there's someone who's acting like they're our best friend. We don't think they are. But most of the time we get this balance right without even really having to think about it. We're very good at switching registers, switching the kind of things we talk about and so on. What is interesting in Tannen's book, I think she argues it very conclusively, is that we disagree about this stuff without even realizing it. Like we have different ideas about what means we're close and not. So let's take a quick look at some of those. So using questions, some people think asking questions shows that they're interested in you and that if you want to show involvement, you should ask questions. Other people think strangers meeting for the first time ask each other questions, friends don't, and they don't want to feel interrogated on their home turf. And complaining. The solidarity complaint is a real phenomenon, you guys - people who think that if we go to a restaurant and I moan about it, you can moan about it with me and we can bond over hating the restaurant. And somebody else would just be like, Why are you being so down on our night out together? Saying what you want. Really contested one: if we're close, does that mean I should be able to just say what I want to you instead of hedging? Or does it mean that you should know what I want because we're close. And she talks about how often that can be a kind of breakdown in communication between couple. And the use of "I" Or "we". If I say, I'm going for a walk am I specifically saying that we are not going for a walk. It seems people have different ideas about this. Okay, I'm digressing because I just find this stuff fascinating. But again, we are starting with a concern for this particular aspect of human behavior. How they show that they're close or not close. And we're finding that people don't even use the same code, people have different ideas about this. If you wrote with those rules in mind, you'd write a really richly observed novel about how people manage relationships. So maybe if your central concern, was loneliness, this would be a really useful set of rules to use. So in this class I'm asking you to think, what is the central concern of your story. Sometimes your natural mode of observing people will have already come to the fore and it will be clear what your voice is when it comes to character. If so, you can maybe skip this step, but it's a useful way to jump start and it's a useful way to refresh with each new story. Make sure you're not just reproducing your old characters and your old concerns. Okay. So these are the two questions that you might want to start by asking: what matters emotionally to my protagonist and what matters thematically to my story. So let me give some examples. If my central concern is feeling lonely, then I can start asking what rules make people seem unavailable. I'll expand on that one in a bit. But as an example, let's think of some more first. So maybe your protagonist feels inadequate or stupid, maybe they're in a new environment. You can quickly heightened this effect by giving all your other characters rules that make them look competent. The young person embarrassed by their family is a comedy staple and pretty much requires every other character to behave according to rules that make them embarrassing. There are loads of modern examples of this. I really recommend the superb Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Renaissance. But it's also an old staple. Look, for example, at the supporting cast in any Jane Austen novel. Here is Elizabeth Bennet fed up. Or again, maybe your character is an American transplanted into the British upper-class and they're trying to work out class rules. The result would be a kind of social satire and it would live or die on your ability to accurately break down class behavior into its component rules. Okay, Let's look at the other approach. What matters thematically to my novel. An example I often use for this is Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. In this novel, human impotence is in the foreground. People are kicked off their land, and even the bank foremen doing the job say that it's not about people, it's about the bank which is bigger than people. It's a system. And from then on, all the characters' attempts at personal agency fail. Fittingly then, if you broke down the characters into what they most commonly do or talk about doing, I think we find that each of them are centrally concerned with controlling one thing. So we've got controlling the pregnancy, we've got controlling the food, we've got controlling the car, controlling the community - one of them tries to go in for community organization and leadership. And we've got just controlling a fantasy future. One of them retreats entirely from controlling anything practical. This is really effective for a novel that is looking at how people cope when they are actually out of control and they are actually powerless. I came up with a few more cases, just as an example where there might be a thematic concern, which isn't necessarily what your characters are emotionally concerned with themselves. So how we act under totalitarian regimes and intrusive regulation, how we raised children or a common one, how we respond to the absurdity of the universe. I would actually argue that comic classic, The Hitchhiker's Guide, could be read this way. Here mad, senseless things keep happening to them and every character has a stock response, a rule. Authors understated bafflement, Marvin's depressed resignation, Zaphod's request for a strong drink or a party, and so on. Okay, let's pull up one of these examples in more detail. Suppose you've decided that your core emotional concern is loneliness. So now you're brainstorming behavior rules that make people seem unavailable. So when I tried this, I had some from conversational style, some "be x" rules, and also just some others that came to mind. So low eye contact, no questions. Talking at length and using formal register can all make someone else feel like you aren't really present with them or aren't really close to them. Likewise, actively maintaining your script as someone who is always busy, always tired or always strong, might make people feel like you are not available to them. I'd throw in a couple more: people whose conversation is mostly about shared experiences with other people not present or who are always forgetting things you told them or even plans you made together. Then I try mashing these together in pairs. So at my audition scene somebody might mention being busy every time they speak and never ask a question, even when it's overwhelmingly expected, like in the exchange of how are you. This person starts to write themselves. They're ever moving, ever overwhelmed, operating in their own stressed out bubble. And we have all had this colleague. I really enjoyed the second one. Use formal register every time they speak, and forget something about the protagonist in every scene and imagining someone very Smiley, very Business School who talks to you like they are responding from a health center. We really want to resolve this issue for you as soon as possible, but they forget everything about you and clearly aren't actually registering you as a person. I hate that guy. So these rules really quickly bring to life people that I have strong feelings about. So I don't have a source of rules for you this time. I'm instead asking you to think what's the central concern of my novel? And what rules do I need to highlight that, to put that at the heart of the story. And you might want to think about conversational style rules and life script rules when you're brainstorming because these cut across all different kinds of concerns and others might just come to you, start to seem obvious. Then when you have a varied interesting list, you can use these as usual to pair them up and write your audition scenes. And I'm hoping that by the end of this class, you will have found characters that you're excited about. Come back to the last class and I'll do a lightning tour of some other character advice to help you go from these audition pages into the final write-up of your story. Good luck. I'll see you there. 6. Some last advice...: Hi, Welcome back and welcome to the last class of this course on characterization. Hopefully by now you've got a couple of rules that are at the heart of each of your characters and they started to come to life for you. So you are ready to move from your audition pieces to your more carefully crafted prose. You'll remember at the beginning we talked about this scale. How to use exaggerated behavior and exaggerated consistency to move along the scale, and making sure you are consistent and clear about where you want to be. We also talked about how intrusive your authorial voice is, meaning how much commentary you provide, and you'll need to have this under control as well. Good prose is all about a sense of control, meaning, as James Woods said, that you can teach us how it is you are planning to write characters. Before I go, I wanted to give you a lightning tour of some of the other characterization tools out there. I said at the beginning that there are loads of ways to approach character. And you never know what's going to help you, nudge you that little bit further along the line. So I thought I'd give you, just whet your appetite and for what else is out there really quickly. So here's some of the most common character advice. Let's go. Goals and wants. You often see the advice, a character should be given a goal or a want, or a need, something they are trying to achieve. This is basically true. If your protagonist doesn't want anything particular, just watching them get kicked around by fate. Isn't that fun. We root for them more if we know what it was they're trying to achieve in life. Often this arises naturally when you're doing the plotting process. Like it's pretty clear for the plot what your character would want in that situation. But it's good to be reminded and to make sure that anybody with a major role, has something clear that their after. When we let it drift stories can just become a bit meh. I don't think it's true for every character though. It depends on their job. If they're for us to invest in them and root for them then yes, give them a goal. If they're just there to entertain us, you know, Maybe they're a walk on at a dinner party. We don't have to know what their goal in life is. It's fine. Backstory. So another popular piece of advice is to know your character's backstory even if it doesn't go into the story itself, just so that you understand them as a person. I have mixed feelings about this. I think it can lead to the danger I mentioned right at the beginning, of knowing more about your character than your reader does and finding them more interesting than anybody else does. I basically think it's good advice if you are writing a story with a theory about human psychology and why we become the people we do, with a theory about what it is like to be a human with a past. I personally love those novels, but it's not relevant in every book. No one wants to know why Poirot is the way he is. No one. So another different use of backstory is that you can just pepper it throughout the story, giving people a little memories or connections from their past. so that they don't appear to have just popped out of nowhere. And this is good advice. It's kind of contributing to realism, this peppering approach, and that leaves onto another piece of very common advice, character profiles. So some people fill out profiles that their characters, so that they know all kinds of little extra details about them. That again, they can just kinda strew throughout the praise. This is useful advice for a particular kind of realism. In real life, people do have irrelevant preferences that don't tell you anything about them and aren't significant. But they just have them because we're humans and we're multifaceted. If you're going for a sense of realism, padding out your characters with these kind of 'untelling' details on purpose can contribute to their lifelikeness. I would personally do this after finding what is at the heart of them, because sometimes the result can be lifelike but kind of bland. So start with why we are interested in this person at all, who they really are, or what the stylized version of them is. And then give them this kind of realistic additional baggage if that is something you are going for. Okay, here's one of my own. You can apply your characters' rules metaphorically. The result is so heavily associated with Charles Dickens that we call it Dickensian and it's a kind of caricature. It's also common in children's literature. So think of the Roald Dahls of the world. Take this Dickens character, Thomas Gradgrind. His rule is to insist that everything be factual. He objects to horses on wallpaper, for example, because horses do not live on walls. And now look at Dickens' description of his appearance. I've highlighted facts metaphors in green and anything to do with squareness and regularity in red. So he says that Gradgrind has a square forefinger, a square wall of a forehead, an obstinate carriage with square coats, square leg, squares shoulders. And then in the green, he says as if the head had scarcely warehouse room for the hard facts stored inside. And nay his very neck cloth trained to take him by the throat with an an accommodating grasp like a stubborn fact. It's amazing writing, And he goes on to describe his house. So as a fact metaphor, Not the least disguise tone down or shaded off that uncompromising fact in the landscape. And then more square stuff. A great Square House, a calculated cast up balanced and proved house, six windows on this side of the door, six on that side, a total of 12 in this wing, a total of 12 and the other wing, four and twenty carried over to the back wings. A lawn and garden and an infant avenue, all ruled straight like a botanical account book. Okay, so if we look at our scale again, this really takes us into caricature territory because in real life, people... apologetic people don't have apologetic houses and loud people don't wear loud hats. But they do in Dickens land. And personally, I find that delightful. So something you could consider playing with. Okay, I'm ending on my favorite piece of advice. I think this is important. Orson Scott Card in Elements of fiction says, characterization is not a virtue, is a technique. You use it when it will enhance your story and when it won't, you don't. Why might you not want to characterize? Well, first of all, it might be because somebody's a walk on character or a minor character and you don't want to pull our focus. And they're not interesting. But also it might apply to your novel as a whole. Think of this as a scale. At one end your reader fills in your characters themselves. They might substitute themselves for the protagonist, their parents for the parents, friends with friends - I mean, not consciously and not exactly, but they're kind of left to their own devices to fill in the characters of this world. At the other end, you are teaching the reader exactly what these characters are like. This is not a story about any old people. This is a story about these particular people and getting to know these particular people is part of why we showed up. Okay, why leave the reader to it? Well, sometimes this is appropriate to your book. Honestly, I'm still working on my theories about this, but I think it's to do with wanting immediate empathy, wanting the reader to be able to substitute themselves. So maybe that's because it's a kind of wish fulfillment story, whether that's a high fantasy or romance. You want your reader to get the chance to sort of live that story themselves. Or maybe it's something where you're going for real emotion, heartstring-pulling, and the story would be painful if it happened to anyone. And so it doesn't matter what's happening to. You mostly want to get your reader directly in those shoes. Or again, maybe it's a kind of fable and you're telling an every-man story. And your point is that it's universal. I mean, at its extreme you get stories are explicitly written as fables and that don't characterize at all. It's all archetypes. And honestly this is, this is up for grabs. We could, we could debate this. But I think it is important to note that you are not obliged to paint every character in detail. If it feels wrong, if it feels irrelevant, if it feels obstructive, don't do it. Characterization is a tool, not a virtue. I'm going to put that quote up one more time because I love it so much. Okay, So guys, to recap, this was a lightning tour of other commonly used character advice. We looked at using goals and wants: yes, make sure your core characters have them. Using backstory: ye-es, if relevant, and peppering in. Using profiles and the non telling detail. Again, I think yeah, if you're going for realism, but do it after you've found the meat of your character. Using metaphorical applications of character rules. Apologetic people in apologetic houses. If you are that way inclined, a little bit stylized and comic. And very importantly, using characterization to taste, think of it like salt. That's a weird note to end on! Guys, that's it from me. I hope you're excited about your cast of characters, and that you're going to enjoy writing them. I would love to hear about what you've done. Take care!