Characterization and The Game of Essences

I want you to think of your grandmother.

If you were to describe her, what would you say? I know that if I were to describe mine, I might say that she is short, plump, spends most of her time either in the kitchen, her garden, or at church, and loves to overfeed her grandchildren with pasta and pizza. Automatically, you might conjure a picture in your head of a typical Italian grandmother—and you would be right.

But if my grandmother were in the midst of 99 other Italian grandmothers of her generation, would you be able to identify her? Probably not, since the very fact of her “typicality” means that she exhibits precisely those qualities that are characteristic of her class.

What would I have to tell you to make her stand out? I might continue in my description and say that she has short, wispy hair and strong, callused hands—but then again, how many women of that generation still have long, thick hair and finely manicured hands? My additional hints are valid facts, indeed, but they would hardly be of any use to you.

The same goes when describing our characters. Strong characterization is vital to the flow of our story. We can provide a slew of facts about them, but ultimately it will be the symbolic associations we convey that will stick with the reader.

Supposing I tell my brother: “my neighbour is an English version of Grandma.” With just that succinct sentence my brother will have formed a clear image in his head of who my neighbour is. To mention that my neighbour’s eyes are brown when my grandmother’s are blue would be completely superfluous, because in that single symbolic association my brother has already grasped the essence of my neighbour. In my brother’s emotional repository, the image of our grandmother summons a very particular set of qualities—and he knows instinctively that it is this melange of qualities to which I am alluding when I compare neighbour and grandmother. In his heart, he already begins to like my neighbour.

And so it is with writing. We needn’t provide every single banal detail about our characters (even if we ourselves should know them), but only a few, key essences–and then the reader will fill in the blanks according to his unique emotional repository. For the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis writes: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Bang. Right there, with that one sentence, we know Scrubb intimately. We have met him before in our schooldays, at the park, at work. Lewis elaborates, but the emotional impact has already been made. We know his essence, and we dislike it. We mock Scrubb.

Now, consider once again your own grandmother. What would be her essence? The game of essences is useful to play here. (The only other time I have heard about the game is in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.) To play, you would ask yourself a question like:

“What kind of car is she?”

The question is not what type of car she drives, has driven, or would like to drive. The question is, if she actually were a car, which one would she be? Calling someone a 1971 Ford Pinto is quite different from calling someone a pink Cadillac. It is an abstract concept, and yet we get the message right away. We are comparing a volatile car with a classy one. The former, the Pinto, is associated with spontaneous road explosions; the latter, with Elvis and his love for his mother.

So, what type of car is your grandmother? Mine would actually be a minibus: humble, dependable, and designed to serve others. Get the point?

This game is rather different from the one I described in an earlier post about getting to know your characters whereby you, the writer, need to figure out what type of car your protagonist actually does drive. That is about knowing the objective reality of your characters; this game of Essences is about learning their intrinsic nature.

Here are some more examples of the kinds of questions that could be asked:

  1. What type of food is she?
  2. What type of house is she?
  3. What type of book is she?
  4. What type of animal is she?
  5. What type of cloud is she?
  6. What type of dance is she?
  7. What type of climate is she?
  8. What type of shoes is she?
  9. What type of art is she?
  10. What type of flower is she?
  11. What type of tree is she?

A symbolic association means an association that is intuitive and emotional, but never calculated and intellectual. This game helps us to create metaphors, so that when we come to the question “What type of tree is she?” and I say “She is an oak,” we know what she is not—flimsy, weak, or ephemeral. We might recall to mind the fable of the oak and the reed, and reflect upon the tree’s majestic sturdiness, but also its inflexibility.

What type of tree is your protagonist?

What type of tree is your protagonist?

Because the oak tree is hardy, long-living, and one that produces fruit (acorns) only once it is well over half a century old, we would thus think of a character who has endured difficult conditions, who is older, and whose life’s work has come to fruition only in the later years of life, as with a grandmother who looks with satisfaction at a large family portrait filled with many offspring. When a clever author is paired with an alert reader, so much can be understood with a simple metaphor! Get into the habit of playing this game with yourself or a friend; it trains the mind and prepares the imagination so that creating metaphors becomes easier and more automatic.