Characterization 102

In the last characterization exercise, we went over stereotypes. Stereotypes are only so useful, though, because by their very nature, they are static and limited only to one or a couple roles.

Before we get into how to write a dynamic protagonist (lesson 103), though, we must cover one more basic step: character roles and relationships. This is an important one to learn, so heed this lesson well. Too often, lazy authors of cliché stories use cheap devices to get rid of characters whose role in the story is merely an inconvenience. Were this not true, we would not have the "one parent rule" in Disney movies, just to name one example. If you know how to handle roles and relationships in your work, though, you can avoid such hackneyed devices.

In the course of any story, one character may have to play several roles. Suppose a person is a mother, for example. Well, that's really only her relationship to her children; to her husband, she's a wife. To her coworkers, she's a coworker. To someone else, she's a complete stranger.

Please dispel the myth from your mind that all people are to be treated equally for the sake of political correctness; real character writing requires a little social perspective, perhaps, but individual perspective is much more important. In life, we do treat people differently, depending on several factors: their age, wealth, whether they are a subordinate or superior in the workplace, whether they're family, friends, strangers, or neighbors we have to live next to for an extended period of time, whether they have a criminal record, whether they have a certain medical condition... The list goes on. Furthermore, when the way we treat people depends on things that one cannot change, such as race or gender, then this treatment turns to prejudice. While in our own lives, most of us abhor such things, you have to keep them in mind, anyway, if only because there are people in the world who do have prejudices, and some of the characters in your works might have them, too.

Put this all together, and consider a scene, then:

You walk into a fast food restaurant and order a hamburger. The cashier asks if you want fries with that.

Even in this simple exchange, there are roles at work. When you treat the person as someone you can order to get you a hamburger, you do so because this person is a cashier--nevermind that outside of the fast food chain, that cashier might have a life and friends and might hate his job and never want to get hamburgers for people... None of that matters right now. As for the cashier, he follows the order because one of his superiors told him that this would be his job. The cashier even adds a question about fries; we may assume he was told to ask that, too, as it is doubtful he would ask such a thing only out of curiosity.

Now that we've had that lengthy introduction, it is time for your assignment.

Consider the character most familiar to you: yourself. Go through an average day in your mind, and list ten people you typically interact with. For each one of those ten people, list their relationship to you, and then list your relationship to them. Which ones do you treat formally, if any? Which ones do you order about the most? Which ones do you obey? Which ones do you disobey? Which ones do you consider friends? Are there any you consider enemies?

And, to all of your answers... Why do you treat them this way?

(For an extended version of the assignment, answer the same questions again from the other person's perspective. Example: Which ones do you think treat you formally? Etc.)