Monday, March 08, 2010

Characterization In Fiction

How much do I know the next person? Do I know him well enough to anticipate his actions and reactions to any given stimulus? What do I know about him that would make me predict his response to an event, a remark, a sensing…touched, heard, seen or smelled?

Where did he grow up? It would make a difference if he grew up in the maze of alleys in the slum clusters as opposed to a childhood lived behind cloistered walls of a swanky residential enclave.
Did he ever have to take a public transport or was he always driving a car or being driven around by a uniformed chauffer?

A person’s make up is composed of the physical, the social, the psychological as well as the mental. These are the factors that define his persona. Corporeal features define whether a person is beautiful or ugly, majestic or plain, amiable or quarrelsome, tough or puny...he is, also, defined by the milieu that he revolves in, his relatives, close friends, mere associates and the way he interacts with them. This will include the institutions he is affiliated with like school, social clubs, religious congregations and political groupings.

He may adhere to the etiquette required like table manners, manner of addressing other persons and other social graces imposed by class conventions. This would apply to the elegant set and to the pedestrian end of the spectrum. Boorish behavior in corner store drinking is as appropriate as using the correct silvers in a formal dinner.

Is he selective with his favors…to whom, to which group? Does he follow conventions and when does he defy them? Is he elitist or is he populist? Why does he favor one class over others? The adage “tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are” may apply.

Genetic factors may be an influence that could not be helped. He could have good genes or poor ones. People are sometimes born with innate superior intelligence, good physique, healthy constitution and a propensity for leadership.

Regional differences exist because of unique environmental factors such as dialect, culture, diet, climate, and presence of sophisticated institutions and relative affluence of the region. Environment impacts in a strong way on an individual’s personality.

However, knowing all these is not sufficient to anticipate another person’s reaction and response to a situation or to the kind of judgment he would make on vital and even on day to day issues confronting him. One can work with a set of possible reactions which would narrow down to a few given the interplay of other factors that make up the character.

On top of all the knowledge that could be had on a person one has to know the reasons behind all the aspects of his physiognomy, his social propensities and his environment. To answer these one has to pull together all these aspects as they tend to be interwoven. He is in the company of riff raff because he grew up in the slums of Tondo or he could be fascinated by low life because he grew up in a protected, antiseptic and boring neighborhood. A vain and pretty girl creates a circle of plain looking friends to make her all the more attractive because of the contrast provided by the homeliness of the rest of the gang. A young boy contemplates a religious vocation because he was in the company of priests in school who became his role models or his anxiety about his harbored homosexuality finds escape and protection from social rejection.

Characters will always be complex. But they do conform to certain parameters although some would have a narrower range than others. Behavioral aberrations have been identified by psychologists and while volumes have been written about them, they represent only a small segment of society and may be considered as outliers straying from the normal trends. In the normality of things they are not supposed to happen.

Character is such an important component in literature and its development in fiction demands craft. A very demanding one because it only allows one to work within the parameters of validated scientific cases in psychology. Consistency of behavior, manners of speaking, value priorities, lifestyle preferences, physical and mental quirks are required to make a character believable and relatable to the reader.

Sometimes stories are interesting because they do not conform to convention. It is definitely a challenge to the ingenuity of the writer to create pivotal and fascinating individuals in his story who in present knowledge do not exist in real life. An excursion from these necessarily brings us to fantasy writing and science fiction. They become special denizens that reside only in the artist’s realm of imagination and this could challenge credibility. The reader is confronted by the plausibility of the character created. It may end in the complete distraction of the reader leading to his losing interest or, happily, the reader may suspend disbelief and enjoy the fiction.

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