Thursday, November 11, 2010

Extraordinary Characterization and the Danger of Muddled Metaphors

Reading thuRsday

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein says the following about characterization:
"... characterize by an action. We individualize by seeing characters doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them. Don't ever stop your story to characterize. Avoid telling the reader what your character is like. Let the reader see your characters talking and doing things."
He continues:
"There are at least five different ways to characterize:"
  1. Through physical attributes.
  2. With clothing or the manner of wearing clothing.
  3. Through psychological attributes and mannerisms.
  4. Through actions.
  5. In dialogue.
So far, so good.
"Readers don't read novels in order to experience the boredom they experience in life. ... The experienced writer will give us characters--even in common walks of life--who seem extraordinary on first acquaintance. ... What makes a character extraordinary? Personality? Disposition? Temperament? Individuality? Eccentricity?"
I certainly agree in principle. But some of his examples of good characterization sound overwrought out of context. Worse, others mix or muddle metaphors. For example, instead of "Ellen looked terrific in her gown." Stein likes:
"In her gown, Ellen looked like the stamen of a flower made of silk."
The stamen and the pistils of a flower (the spindly bits that stick out in the center of a flower) are the plant's reproductive structures--probably not the first part of the flower we visualize when we think of beauty. There's also the inconvenient fact that the stamen is the male part of the plant, so at best we're dealing with a muddled metaphor.

The essence of Stein's advice is that the world of our common experience is so common, so ordinary that only the uncommon, the extraordinary serves to characterize. I agree. But be careful when striving to capture the extraordinary not to gloss over details that undermine what you're trying to achieve.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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