The Label Factor(y) – Character Development
I am from liberal, sunny California, where a lot of people – especially people of my age, are against labeling things. More specifically, against labeling certain character traits of people. Labels are “bad” and labels are “wrong”. If you are writing fiction, however – you are going to have to force yourself to accept the fact that dealing with personality traits that human beings may have in broad, general categories is a useful tool in character development.
Even when you try to complete avoid labels, you are creating them. The recent stories about viewers reacting negatively to discovering that certain characters in the Hunger Games were, in fact, black, is a good example. When you don’t specifically identify, your reader fills in the blanks, and sometimes these blanks are filled in with “defaults”. When the gender is not named, many will presume the character to be male. When the race is not mentioned, many will presume the character is white. American readers tend to presume any character not specifically identified as being from another country is American, for instance. Yet as a writer, you may wish to create your characters with sufficiently faceted and nuanced traits so as to hold the sustained interest of your reader.
Attempts to add subtlety create opportunities to be interpreted differently
than the way you intended for the reader to receive you. It is my opinion that the writer should be open to allowing the reader to use his/her own imagination in interpreting the work. Once, I read an interview with singer/songwriter Seal where he explained that he stopped telling people what his song lyrics meant after he came to the inclusion that what they imagined them to mean was often a lot more interesting than what he intended. Writing is an interactive medium because even when the reader doesn’t make any character choices, she or he is reading things into the story in between the lines and creating parts of your character’s persona for you based upon their own person experience and interpretation of the world. Your reader is another character being inserted into your story, one who is somewhat of a mystery to you. Understanding who your readership is, is known as “knowing your audience”. The thing is, if you are a small press or independent press author, your audience may be quite small.
My publicist (aka “mom”) asked me a couple of months ago who my audience was. I answered off the cuff, “women.” Then my mom – who has worked in and studied public relations – went over my sales numbers and immediately told
me that this demographic information was irrelevant for a marketing plan. Why? Because I hadn’t sold a large enough sampling to determine accurate demographic information, and because the local nature of my marketing approach would be a factor: people were buying books because I was local, and they were assuming they would appeal to people in my own demographic: i.e., guys were buying them for their wives, because they assumed that as a woman, I would be writing for women. That assumption isn’t too far off the mark: when we write, sometimes we write to an imagined audience. For my second book, The Moon Cried Blood (TMCB), the imagined audience actually was female, and it is a book with strong feminine themes. For the first book, the imagined audience was local: “Solitude” is a very San Francisco book filled with references that will resonate strongly with anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in San Francisco during the past 10 or 15 years. But an author isn’t necessarily writing for his/her own demographic. Some vague knowledge of who you are writing for is helpful. For instance, I had to change the cover for TCMB because the first one gave a mistaken impression that it was Young Adult. It’s not.
This hopefully segues nicely into the second part of Character: the internal life
there of. What your character looks like, and the demographic information such as age, race, gender and place of residence for that character don’t completely inform the life of that character. A male character might be introverted, extroverted… vain, or humble. He might enjoy showing off and dressing in bright colors, and for all of these things that your character feels and believes, there may be a back story – a history, a “why”. All writers write differently: my personal style of writing is focused a bit on discovering who this character really is, and then plotting that character’s trajectory in the story arch based upon what would be “in character” for a person of that character type, in that situation. This works for me, because my stories are from-the-inside-out creations where often, ordinary people deal with quite out of the ordinary, or supernatural situations. That’s the case in “Solitude” and in “The Moon Cried Blood” – “Solitude” involves an ensemble cast reacting to the strange disappearance of most of San Francisco, and “The Moon Cried Blood” involves an adolescent girl facing a family “curse” – or is it a “blessing”? – that happens to girls in her family when they become women. Leticia “Tisha” Gordon is a very young protagonist who exists in a terrifying adult horror fiction world – in much the same way as Charlene “Charlie” McGee does in Stephen King’s “Firestarter”.
The character has one set of labels – the reader, another. Young Adult is a label describing these “?” characters known as your audience. We know that Charlie McGee’s story isn’t written for the same audience as is the story of Margaret
Simon in Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret.” 11 year old protagonist Margaret Simon is around the same age as Charlie McGee and 13 year old Tisha Gordon. Margaret and Tisha are both on the verge of menarche – that is, their first menstrual periods. But Margaret is in a book for other little girls who want to read about periods, while Tisha is going to get some kind of freaky Bene Gesserit style sci-fi powers when she gets her period, and then she’s going to be chased around by scary possessed winos in 1970s Hollywood with massive, fresh eye wounds. I’d like to stop here, briefly, and acknowledge that the haunting line about “yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” contained in the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus” inspired certain scenes from TCMB. But no, reanimated dead dogs with yellow matter custard dripping from the eyes are not really appropriate subject matter for 11 to 13 year old girls, is my point. Yet, horror writers can imagine the internal life of a girl that age and visualize how a Charlie McGee or a Tisha Gordon would react to the scary people out to kill them.
In the Internal Life of a character, there is who she (or he) is and how that makes him (or her) react to certain situations. Tisha Gordon is not like Paul
Maudib – she also is in a family line that has back-and-forth travel through the memory, essentially race memory (this isn’t exactly a spoiler because you know it by the end of the first chapter), but she in character and in life experience she is a very different sort. She is an ordinary, troubled inner-city teen with a traumatic history. When I was eighteen, I was very moved J.D. Salinger’s description of Holden Caulfield feeling like he was falling into the sidewalk in Catcher in the Rye. What he described in Holden is what is known as “depersonalization.” Although “Catcher in the Rye” was not written as YA, it became popular YA – so popular that it was banned, as a result of containing content deemed inappropriate for the teens who wanted to read it. Not all teens will like the story – but for me, it marked the very first time I realized I wasn’t the only person in the world who experienced “depersonalization” and I was overcome with that sense of relief one has when coming to know one is not alone. It was theorized that Salinger, a war veteran, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and imbued Holden with the traits of a person who had PTSD.
It is always going to be far more effective to describe the traits of a person with a condition than it is to slap that label on the person. Could you imagine if Salinger just said “Holden Caulfield had PTSD”? How much would that suck? Instead, he wrote convincing descriptions of the character’s internal and external life that lead the reader to that conclusion. Leticia Gordon is a character who exhibits traits from the internal life of a person with that kind of trauma, but she also exists in a world where supernatural occurrences are real. For her story – there are periods of time where it becomes purposely difficult to separate her internal life from her external life. This sort of “what is real and what is not real” confusion would not occur with a totally levelheaded, not at all neurotic, not at all psychotic protagonist – yet in telling a story, it is her behavior and emotional reaction that should draw the reader to a conclusion.
In conclusion… we may wish to completely avoid labels, but for clarity’s sake it is not always possible. Every label you come up with internal to describe a character to yourself is not one that winds up in your written work: sometimes, you know that your character has a trait, you may even have a journal somewhere (I do) of character descriptions that says “Leticia has PTSD” but that’s not what ends up in your book – what ends up in your book are a series of actions, reactions and thoughts the character experiences that lets your reader put together a picture of that character from the trail of breadcrumbs you give them.