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As a Writer, I Don't Want Characterisation to Be Easy

Atlin Merrick Characterisation Characterization

Here's a picture of a writing prompt I put up recently. Simple, yeah? Some colours, a few words, no biggie.

Except, here's the thing about it—it turned into a big thing for me because I had me some thinky thoughts while creating it.

Spin a tale... (Writing prompts)See, I'd put together the nice little boxes of colour, but since I had the dumb that day I couldn't think of words, so Skype-asked my friend Anarion for a few.

She shared what you see: wifi, spin a tale, and empathy and as soon as I started typing them into the boxes I stopped typing.

Cause here's the other thing: I was immediately putting the word empathy with the pretty colour.

And that felt like it mattered.

So, since I often like to stop a knee-jerk creative decision, I asked myself 'why are you doing this?' Same as I have in the past asked 'why is this new character male? What if they're female? Genderqueer? Non-binary? And everything else stays the same?'

So, what if the word empathy doesn't go with the brighter colour because empathy is a bright emotion? What if I put it with the colour black? What thoughts would that bubble up?

For me, it absolutely changed the sort of story I wrote (see the comments). I began thinking of empathy practiced when things are literally or emotionally dark. If I'd have put the word empathy with the burgundy instead, as I originally started to do, my mind would have toyed with grandma-type stuff because there's just something about burgundy for me that says older, the past, soft. I don't know why.

Why Easy Characterisation Makes Me Stop

So when I write—whether these prompts or a story—I try and be aware of characterisations that feel too easy. 'So my new character appeared in my head as a white, straight man.'

Yes but chances are good he appeared in my head that way because most characters I see in nearly all entertainment media are white, straight guys. My subconscious has that default legion on which to model my own characters, whereas it has fewer examples of everyone else.

So a colourful little writing prompt turned into me talking with you about why I like to stop. think. look.

If my character looks like that default legion do they have to? The answer is nope, no, almost never. And no, the story doesn't have to be about them not being white, straight, or male either. It can be the exact same story I wanted to tell originally because guess what? Everyone else in this world can also have adventures, solve mysteries, fall in love, foil alien attacks.

So when you see your newborn characters in your mind's eye, is that who they need to be, or are they modeled after people you've already seen and seen and seen?

Can they be someone else, someone new?

It's up to us of course, it's up to us because we're the writers. And the world is full to beautiful bursting with characters of every description possible.

I for one want to give them their stories, too.

And hey, if you do as well, come talk to me. Here's how to find me.

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  • Atlin Merrick on

    What a fantastic comment Artemis, thank you!

  • ArtemisAstarte on

    In the novel I wrote before Since First I Saw Your Face, my main characters were white. One (Christophe) was half French, the other (John) Irish. Christophe was gay, John bisexual. There was a thirteen year age gap between them, teacher John (49) was married, with two teenage daughters. Surgeon Christophe (36) had chosen to be celibate. I wanted to look at how their family history shaped how they were – there’s a lot of interaction with families – and who they were, and what would happen if they developed an intensely romantic, emotional and sexless intimacy with each other within the confines of an English village – a gossipy, nosy, claustrophobic, quite nasty little English village.

    I guess that I’m saying is they’re both white, and I suppose you could say that that’s because I saw them that way because I’m conditioned to see protagonists that way. But I grew up on Austen and Brontë, so most of my main characters are female, not male. These two just wandered into my head and insisted on being written about.

    I did write them ending up together. Happily, in the end, but not easily, or without cost. And both of them had flaws that could wreck any relationship, it wouldn’t be simple for them to stay together, especially as they ended up with responsibility for the daughters. (I didn’t kill the wife off, just so you know. She moved on very decidedly to fresh woods and pastures new.)

    It was an absolutely massive novel: took me three years to write. I still take it out and reread it from time to time. I’ve never submitted it for publication – it’s far too long. But it was fun to write, a real jeu d’esprit – intensely literary, allusive, full of quotes and echoes and inversions, parallels and re-workings. I had my two lovers quote e.g. Jane and Rochester to each other: queer lovers reinterpreting and owning heterosexual literary lovers, and at one point when the surgeon’s father criticises him for his choice of person to love: “he looks poor and shabby and plain: with all your advantages could you find no-one more worthy of you?” the surgeon says to his father, “yes, he, poor and obscure and plain as he is, it is he I choose as a husband.” (Then his father says to him “he might justly reprove your incivility, as Jane did Rochester’s.”)

    I have characters who are poc. Not all English villages are all white, though they about 99% are. My teacher protagonist’s parents split when he was twelve, and his father came out as gay, racketed around having fun for ten years and then settled with a guy who physically is the spit image of a (straight) Tamil guy I worked with years ago. And he walked straight in as well: when I saw John’s father’s partner in my mind’s eye, he was always Tamil, like my work partner, Siv. He’s one of the characters I like most: he’s so sensible and grounded, and my protagonists can both be a bit of a PITA sometimes.

    It’s problematic, writing English villages, but it’s often said "write what you know, and my God, do I ever know English villages. The characters in them are fascinating: Austen said she liked to write about “three or four families in an English village” and so do I. They’re not fashionable though, such stories, another reason it’ll never be published. But it was so much fun to write. (And I enjoyed putting a few people I didn’t like in there. 😈 Just to add a little spice to the sugar.)

    Goodness, sorry I’ve rambled so much. I liked your post. Thank you!

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