Characterization: A Structural Approach

Characterization: A Structural Approach.

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Characterization: A Structural Approach

This is defining a character per Nabokov’s dictum (Paris Review Interviews Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40): “My characters are galley slaves,” i.e., they don’t get turned loose to surprise the author by shifting the direction the story takes. If the author has gone to the trouble of designing a plot, he doesn’t want a renegade character tampering with it.

It’s a given that a character in a story needs to be distinguishable from the other characters with whom he interacts. You don’t want your reader to confuse characters! This can be accomplished with tags. Tags individualize.

There are four types of tags:

(1) Tags of Appearance: Bennett was of a ruddy complexion.

(2) Tags of Expression: Oliver’s voice tended to rise at the end of sentences, turning statements into questions.

(3) Tags of Mannerism: Sam tugged on his right ear lobe when puzzled (e.g., Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941)).

(4) Tags of Habit of Thought: Darrel tended to jump to a conclusion, reconsider, and reverse himself.

You won’t need to mention every tag every time a character makes an appearance in the story, but if he’s been gone a while, it would be in order to display his tag or tags again.

In addition to tags, characters express traits. Whereas tags are external and superficial, traits are internal and reasonably stable. Traits are indicative of “character.”

There are four types of traits:

(1) Human Traits: As the sermon passed the fifty-minute mark, Wilbur dozed off. He’s human; readers can identify with him.

(2) Typical Traits: Samantha stopped to pet the dog. She’s ordinary, not unconventional.

(3) Social Traits: Gustav tipped his hat to the ladies. He’s polite (and old-fashioned).

(4) Individual Traits: Howard was always in a hurry. He’s not like some others who are inclined to amble leisurely.

A character will have a Function or Capacity, otherwise why is he in the story? For filler?

If in Chapter 16 Maude needs to rescue Herbert from drowning, she needs to be a strong swimmer. That’s her Function or Capacity.

If in Chapter 22 Superman needs to find Lois Lane before the reactor goes critical and explodes, he’ll need X-ray vision. That’s his Tool or Weapon.

Here’s how to convey to the reader what the character is like:

Presentation of character:

(1) Through character’s own speech: “I am king as I was born to be!”

(2) Through character’s own action: Victoria threw the tequila shot in Ian’s face.

(3) Through character’s effect on other characters: All the maidens swooned in Jason’s wake as he passed.

(4) Through effects of others upon the character: Tears streamed down Lyle’s face as he watched the automobile-struck armadillo in its death throes.

(5) Through reports of other characters: “I saw Geraldine scoop the kitten from the precipice at a dead run.”

(6) Through author’s psychological analysis: Henry’s superego was underdeveloped and incapable of controlling his rampant id.

(7) Through author’s objective description: Wayne took the blind man’s tin cup, removed the coins, and replaced the cup.

(8) Through author’s direct exposition: Milton was a sorry excuse for a grocery bagger.

There are three kinds of characters, categorized by how important they are to the story. A Flat Character is a walk-on, a place-holder. He’s the doorman who flags down the taxi for Hortense, and then disappears into the building. The In-Relief Character visits a little, jokes, asks after Hortense’s mother, and disappears into the building. A Round character is one of the pivotal figures in the story. The story is about him or them.

(1) Flat Character: Show human traits. Don’t let him steal the show, confusing the reader, because he’s not supposed to be important.

(2) In-Relief Character: Show Human and Typical traits; he’s fairly minor.

(3) Round Character: Show Human, Typical, and Individual traits. The protagonist is a Round Character; he’s complex and can show contradictions. Likewise the antagonist. They can legitimately surprise the reader if prior hints about their nature have been dropped, and the setup prepared.

Here’s a checklist which the writer can prepare for each character, lest he reach page 400 and have forgotten whether it’s kimchi or croissants that Mortimer is allergic to.

Story Title:
Character No. 1 – Name:
of appearance:
of expression:
of mannerism:
of habit of thought:
Function or capacity:
Tool or weapon:
Presentation of character
through character’s own speech:
through character’s own action:
through character’s effect on other characters:
through effects of others upon character:
through reports of other characters:
through author’s psychological analysis:
through author’s objective description:
through author’s direct exposition:
Kind of character (flat, in relief, round):

Taken from:

Campbell, Walter S. (Vestal, Stanley) (1940). Writing
Magazine Fiction. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company.

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Zombie Nouns (per The New York Times)

Nominalizations Are Zombies, from the excellent Draft series.

Good article and analytic device!  Painless critique group!  No one need know how terrible your writing is.  For example I offer up one of my own.  Horrors!  My verbs are FLABBY!  Or to follow the advice proffered and eliminate one of the insidious “be” words, my verbs flab.  Sorry, but that’s about as far as I can go to convert an adjective into an active verb.

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Thanks, Jan!

Many thanks to Jan Morrill who kindly set up this blog for me one-handed while in the other hand she held a chicken salad sandwich.  It was quite an impressive performance.  To see what a real blog looks like, check out hers:

Jan Morrill Writes

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