November 5 post: STELLAR characterization

For today, a writing post.

I’ll show you a trick to help you with indirect characterization. Well, actually, I will tell you why you shouldn’t do that — or not as much as is common nowadays.

If you have spent some time looking up writing guides and the like, you might have come across something called the STEAL method. I don’t know original the source of the ‘method’, I guess people take the acronym very seriously, but it’s relatively popular. Basically, it’s a mnemonic to help you remember some ways to, indirectly, shape a character according to its Speech, Thoughts, Effects (on others,) Actions, and Looks.

It’s not a bad method, but keep in mind that it’s indirect characterization, which is a bit overrated anyway. In fact, indirectness is a common trait in contemporary fiction, and I’d say it’s even a fad, and a harmful one. From the obsession of showing over telling, or deep POV/narrator vs. a freer one, it seems people are terrified of just stating things directly and using their authorial/narrative voice and superpowers. This is direct characterization, and pretty much all telling over showing, with a mostly omniscient narrator who knows things nobody else does:

“Mr. Pricklebotton was a cantankerous old man, bitter of the new world he didn’t understand and longing for a past he misremembered. His only living object of affection was a stray dog he sometimes fed, but not very well. And in the non-living category, he loved all the garbage he had accumulated during his long life, a habit that had gone from amusing pastime to fire and health hazard as he grow older, the trash piled up, and he began to straddle the line between eccentricity and senility.”

I made this up right now. However, according to most “writing experts” online, this is awful writing. According to them, I should “show” those things, with dialogue, actions, and interactions with other characters, with deep POV and visceral, emotional, multisensory descriptions… which in practical terms means it would take me five or more pages of unnecessary fodder just to show what I just told in three concise sentences.

So yes, you can simply tell or state things and tell how characters are, directly, using your narrator privilege. That’s why it’s called storytelling, not storyshowing. And yes, you can start a story with that, by telling how the character is.

Now, with that being said, sometimes you have to be indirect. Perhaps because you want to keep some things about the character secret, perhaps because it’s not the right moment, perhaps the character is evolving and changing and you want to hint at that, or perhaps you trust your readers’ intelligence and like to leave oblique hints for them to pick up. Then, indirect characterization helps.

In a sense, indirect characterization is just what we do when we infer someone’s personality from their actions. We see how somebody reacts, responds, or relates to something, and then we assume his inner personality/character/temperament type (usually wrongly, of course.) For example, image a young Hitler: He goes to the opera to listen to Wagner and while most people go “now that’s good music,” he says, “Hmm, I have this strange urge to invade Poland and reinstate the Reich.” Now that’s a strong reaction! And indirectly, it tells (well, shows) you what kind of guy he is.

Without going too much into psychology, the simplified line of human behaviour is like this: A stimulus appears -> emotional reaction (including evaluation) -> thoughts -> behaviour (although some signs of emotional reaction could be labelled as behaviours) You characterize people (or monsters or animals) by how they React to things that appear or happen (whether outside or inside themselves,) and there are different levels on which to focus. Hence STEAL, which actually reflects different behavioral levels: Speech behavior, Inner Thoughts (or even inner-speech,) Effects or other (or, basically, other people’s own STEAL-reactions to him,) open behaviour (Actions,) and Looks, which includes not only physical description but how the character presents himself (how he dresses, moves, etc.) which could be described as complex, long sequences of small or even micro behaviours.

Not all the levels convey the same information and, in fact, you can cheat or lie the reader with some of them. Behaviours can be faked, Speech can be rehearsed (and people lie,) etc. Thoughts are more honest, but it seems it’s not that popular to simply state the character’s thoughts anymore. In fact, I’m not sure Thoughts should be considered a form of indirect characterization.

In any event, this is why I have added the R of Reactions, Responses, and Relating. They encompass pretty much all the other letters and many more that could be added, changing the acronym from STEAL, to the more appropriate and cooler STELAR. And because it should be STELLAR, I add another L, for Longings (or “love” if you feel like it,) meaning that which the character desires, that which orients his behaviour. So: Speech, Thoughts, Effects, Looks, Longing, Actions, and Reactions.

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