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.”

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The Seven Quests/Motivations and why we can’t have nice things

Among all the lists that tell you exactly how many “types of story” exist, I like this one about the Seven Quests. No, I don’t mean the famous The Seven Basic Plots but this one in this more obscure, plain, and unsourced website: Love, Money, Power, Glory, Revenge, Survival, and Self. I don’t know the source behind it, and I don’t think it’s an exhaustive list —I can think of two other important motivations— but it’s useful, simple, and surprisingly powerful.

What I like about that list is that it actually focuses on human emotions and motivations, not abstract Jungian narratives like “Killing the Monster.” After all, what does that even mean? Killing it, sure,… but for what? Because you want to loot his treasure, revenge, or simple survival? It changes the story quite a lot whether the motivation of our hero is one or the other, and it also highlights the pitfalls of each motivation, its dark side if you will (Love -> Jealousy, Money -> Greed, Power/Glory -> Arrogance & Wrath, Revenge -> Obsession & Moral downfall, Survival ->? (this one is morally neutral as I will explain later.)

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