By Elizabeth Lyon
In my work with writers over the years, I’ve come to believe that mastering plotting is far easier than mastering characterization. Creating depth of character means, for the writer, diving into the mostly uncharted waters of the psyche, the soul, and the spirit.
Recently, I led one of my three critique groups on a guided tour of these waters. I gave the assignment of discovering and developing a metaphor for the protagonist or other point-of-view characters. One of my dictionaries defines metaphor as: “A figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy.” The dictionary goes on to give the example, “the evening of my life.” We use metaphors in daily speech all of the time. Don’t believe me? Dog days. Buried under a mountain of paperwork.
My belief is that human beings make decisions that are consistent with the metaphors or myths they have learned and adopted. Since fiction seeks to approximate life, but is far more selective, it makes sense to limit to one, or two, the metaphor that represents each character.
For instance, many characters fit a warrior metaphor. Fighters, soldiers, law enforcement personnel, and survivor types may view their lives as a battlefield. If the battle or war metaphor fits a character, you can expect this character to think, talk, and act consistent with that metaphor.
Let’s take characters who see life through the viewing lens of an artist. The portrait of their lives will be far different from the warrior’s battlefield. These artists could consider the shades and gradations of meaning, see life as a canvas awaiting the application of color and vision. What would it be like for the artist to find common ground with someone who divides the world into the powerful and the weak, into friend and foe, conquered and vanquished? What if these two characters marry each other?
After you have discovered the metaphor for your character, the next step is to find the words and concepts that express that metaphor. Use your thesaurus or do a computer word search, as I did when I entered “art terminology.” Is your character a nature-lover, a descendant of farmers? Your word and phrase list might include: broadcasting seeds, planting, waiting for the harvest, plowing under, ‘for everything there is a season’, roots, fertile, fields, trust and faith, sowing and reaping. This list becomes your resource for more authentic characterization. You can literally build a dictionary, a lexicon, for your characters. Draw from it when you are writing this character’s point of view, in narration and in dialogue. With knowledge of a character’s primary metaphor and with a word list in hand, you’ll have an easier time with one of a fiction writer’s most difficult tasks: writing an extended metaphor.
The careful sculpting of believable characters is so important, that in my newly released book, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore (Perigee Publishing, 368 pages, $14.95 US), I devoted 100 pages to what can go wrong and how to fix it vis-a-vis character development.
Two other resources for helping you find metaphors that fit your characters: Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help us Find Ourselves and Transform our World by Carol S. Pearson (HarperSanFrancisco, $14.95 pb), and, from a pre-eminent screenplay writer and teacher, Power Screenwriting: Ancient Archetypes in Modern Cinema by Michael Chase Walker (Mentor Books, spiral bound, 300 pages, $42).
Once you get the lay of the land, the land of metaphor that is, you will have all kinds of fun, working your word lists and phrases into the prose, planting subtle seeds that the reader may sense at deep, perhaps right-brain, levels. The culmination could be a wonderful harvest: deeper and truer characterization, more artistry in your writing, and touching the reader. Like a cleansing rain or a breath of mountain air, your writing will refresh you and your reader. Can you tell that I began life on a farm? © 2008
Elizabeth Lyon has worked as an independent book editor for 20 years through her company, Editing International. She is the author of six books for writers on nonfiction and fiction craft, on marketing nonfiction and fiction, and on revision. See www.manuscriptmakeover.com, www.4-edit.com, and www.elizabethlyon.com. She resides in Springfield, Oregon.