Lately I have been wondering about characterization. What is it actually? If an author makes a point of drawing a heroine as self-sufficient and independent but in the middle of the book, she turns needy and clingy, is that a problem with characterization or is the author putting in a touch of realism?
I know an individual’s confidence and self-assurance can vary from situation to situation but I have discovered if an author writes some aspect of a character’s personality down, if I read it, then I expect that character for the most part to act in that manner. Rightly or wrongly, if an author draws a character in the beginning one way, then while they may grow as people, I don’t expect them to regress for no good reason. When I say this, I am not talking about situational reactions. I can easily give an author a lot of leeway if I understand why a character is acting a certain way. For instance, Deborah Smith’s heroine Cathryn Deen from The Crossroads Cafe goes from gorgeous, self-assured, and privileged to isolated, solitary, and desolate after a horrific car crash destroys her movie star looks. Instead of people looking at her in awe they turn away in horror. Her personality and her feelings about herself make a dramatic change, but it’s one that makes sense under the circumstances.
As another example, recently I read Don’t Cry for Me by Sharon Sala for review. The heroine is written as resilient, independent and self-sufficient. She has come back home from Afghanistan due to injuries that she suffered there, and she is also dealing with PTSD. However even though she deals with her issues throughout the book, whenever the going gets tough, she stays true to her characterization.
However, the first time I read Robyn Carr’s Moonlight Road, I had a difficult time with the characterization of Mel, one of the recurring characters. She is the heart of the community, both wise and caring. But out of the blue she comes up with this wild idea and she turns selfish and self-centered. I kept thinking, “Has she lost her mind?” Ultimately Ms. Carr convinced me that Mel’s reaction was situational based on something that had happened in the past- Mel just hadn’t dealt with a loss, suppressing those emotions. Of course suppressed emotions can’t stay buried forever, and they resulted in her irrational behavior, but it took me a while to follow that arc.
Staying true to the written parameters of a character is a true art and definitely not straightforward task. I am sure that all authors have a picture in their head of their characters, but the author then has to add in plot devices and conflict plus make the characters come alive on the page. As a reader, I think it is easy when all these ingredients are added into the mix, for the lines began to blur. Let’s face it, no author intends to write a TSTL heroine(I hope!) but it might happen if she is focused on providing conflict within the story, instead of remembering her character. In the hands of a less-talented or less-experienced author, the characters’ emotions and how they act can change from one situation to another. It seems that some think the solution to one-dimensional characters is to demonstrate the range of all human reactions without regard for who their character really is.
While I talked about plot devices and conflict, I didn’t mention character growth. While I can’t say that I demand character growth in every book, I tend to expect it most of the time. Character growth is another element that adds depth and richness to the story. However, for me character growth doesn’t mean a change in characterization. I can’t tell you how many stories I have read about a quiet, retiring heroine who rarely dates, but suddenly she is overcome with lust and jumps into bed with a perfect stranger. Or a thirty-five year old hero who never had a healthy relationship and who is a loner, but love changes him into a gregarious family man at the drop of a hat. Believable character growth for me involves having the hero or heroine overcome an obstacle or roadblock to their happiness, not a complete personality transplant. For this reason, tortured heroes or heroines can have too much dramatic alteration for me to easily accept.
The amount of change in the character, the time frame, and of course, the author’s skills all play a part in my willingness to believe. As an example, I adored Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ What I Did for Love. Right after it was released, I read comments from many readers who had issues with Bram’s transformation. However, as I saw it, Bram’s only issue had to do with learning to love and commitment. He had already turned his life around financially. He had solid friendships as well, so it was easy for me to accept this one change. Did it happen quickly? Sure, but when an author uses humor I find that it is easier for me just enjoy the story. And of course Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a very talented author and wrote this well.
Now for your input- what do you expect from characters? Do characters that change with each situation seem more genuine to you, or do you have the expectation of a certain type of behavior from them?
– Leigh Davis