On Characterization


Man in sunny courtyard, Budapest,
photograph by caroline allen, 2007

How do you begin a story? There are lots of ways writers throughout time have used to build a story. You can begin with a concept, a philosophical idea, a sketchy plot. You can start with a newspaper clipping, a story from your childhood, gossip you’ve heard.

A lot of authors begin by developing character, a method I have come strongly to believe in.

If you understand who your characters are fundamentally, when you put them together in a setting, a story grows organically — the dialogue they use, the actions they take, and the consequences of their actions, both practically and emotionally, grow naturally, the story flows.

I teach extensive characterization with clients I coach. I use a three-page characterization sheet given to me by writers I know in London. The sheet covers everything from hair color to religious affiliation to childhood hobbies.

So a couple of years ago, I decided to try something. I decided I would not come up with a plot or a story idea. Instead I would sit down with the characterization sheet, and create one character in depth. I would take another characterization sheet and create another character in depth. I would take the characterization sheet again and make a third character in depth.

I had no idea what the story would be. I first created a protagonist, a Jewish woman, Judith, an alcoholic who had been court ordered to go to AA meetings. Judith lived in a luxurious home and collected antiques, specifically antique clocks. Her father was a psychotherapist.

Still not really knowing the story I was going to write, I created another character, Analise, a 20-year-old Catholic girl who worked at a jewerly counter at a department store in a mall. She also happened to go to AA meetings. I decided it was also true that her mother was an alcoholic.

All of these decisions were being made while I was simply filling out a three-page sheet of questions about the character. I had not started writing the story at all. I had no idea of plot, except of course the connection of both as alcoholics.

Still, without really knowing the story yet, I created a third character – Judith’s ex-husband, David. He was a collector of ancient coins, read a lot of books on the Holocaust, and had a bad back. Although he would be a minor player in the story, I still filled out the characterization sheet, so that I could understand him quite dimensionally.

Then, I decided to put my two main characters into a setting to see what happened. An AA meeting was a logical setting. I decide to have the AA meeting in the basement of a Baptist Church. As in traditional Western storytelling, there needed to be some conflict, and that conflict needed to build organically to a climax.

So, the conflict I decided to use, the conflict that grew directly out of building the characterization sheets, was that in the AA meetings, Judith would become obsessed with Analise, addicted to her, and that Analise would try to get away from her.

The result was a short story entitled: Antique Clock. Here are the opening paragraphs:

The Antique Clock

I’ve cracked my Styrofoam cup and coffee is dripping, one drip every few seconds, Baptist Coffee Torture. Drip. Drip. Drip. One is supposed to speak at one of these meetings but one can never seem to manage. Don’t tell me Gentiles aren’t as good kvetches as Jews. Every week, it’s the same group of meshuginahs, in the same schmootz encrusted basement, in the same folding chairs, surrounded by pea green plastic tablecloths drinking schlecht from the cracked coffee pot. The divorce almost doesn’t bother me as much as being condemned to this – this basement of a Baptist Church.

Brown liquid in a small pool at my feet. Damn, the shaking. A cigarette. My kingdom for a cigarette. Finally, break time. Analise is in the corner by the coffee maker. I come up behind her quietly, so as not to scare her. She’s holding a journal, writing things down in some sort of grid, tiny letters in tiny boxes, numbers wedged between the words. A language of her own.

Analise is the only one with some manners. Like my Ellen. Elegant, straight, sparing. Ellen. I want to tell Analise, your mother raised you right. You just don’t understand. I step closer. Hair like butterscotch. Glowing beneath fluorescent lights. I could just drink her in. I lean in. She turns. Our faces are so close. She screams.

Judith! Marla, the facilitator yells from across the room. She heads toward us. Dishwater blonde. A gentile who likes to “express herself”. She’s shaking her head. Oy, I’m in trouble with the teacher. Oh, I’m soooo scared.

I sniff loudly in Marla’s direction. I press my hands toward the floor, like I’m trying to tame a dog. Marla stops, breathes through her nose like a bull.

I don’t have time for her now and turn back to Analise. Analise spent the whole session kvetching about her mother. We’re not supposed to interrupt, but I wanted to scream: Your mother loves you! She loves you! Aye aye aye! All that hair, the black eyes. Like my Ellen. I was always telling Ellen, why do you cover up those eyes? When she was little, I’d push her hair back from her sweet face, and she’d close her eyes.

Analise is looking down at the white pleats of her blouse; she has coffee on her and it takes me a while to realize I was the one who did that to her. She’s crying. I take a tissue from my sleeve and wipe her blouse, make cooing sounds. I look up and notice her jaw is clenched and her hands are up as if this is a stick up.

Marla takes me roughly by the arm.

If you are trying to come up with story ideas, try starting with character. Understand every aspect of two or three characters, until each feels like a separate entity standing in the room with you. Put them in a fictitious setting. Watch what happens. Record what you see.

Starting with character was a method I had not tried until a year or two ago. I found that the story only took a few months to write — when I start with a philosophical idea or concept, I find that the process of finishing a short story took me quite a bit longer.


4 thoughts on “On Characterization

  1. can’t say that i write much prose; had the inclination to on occasion but never knew where to start; i appreciate the thoughtful, simple advice for what to me seems like a daunting task.


  2. I have to tell you that I watched Carrie first create Judith, Analise and David, and I recently read the entire story she developed from it. It is a really, really riveting piece, fantastic writing and incredible story telling.

    She is absolutely right on about this advice.


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