Thursday, June 28, 2012

Subtleties in characterisation

This painting by New Zealand artist Sofia Minson demonstrates some interesting points about characterisation.

  • what you don't bother to show is as important as what you do show
  • that images and stories take us somewhere in our heads, a place of connection or conflict
  • that you can manipulate the feel of a piece by the tones you use
  • that you don't need to strive for an absolutely clear understanding, sometimes a hint, a series of hints, is enough
What you don't bother to show

Note how the edges of the painting around the character's face blur and fade into nothing. Sometimes background information is valuable, sometimes a singular focus - if only for a moment - gives intensity and resonance. Pick your moments to bring out background detail; and pick your moments to let it fade

Where images and stories take us

This is one of the key facets of storytelling (prose, poetry, dance, art, music etc) and one of the key reasons it exists as a concept and a practice in the first place. It makes us ask questions of the character, of their world, ask what resonance their world has to ours. Is a single character's struggle representative of a universal struggle. Will my character's lives reflect other lives

Feel and tone

Musicians have used this forever. You can take a jaunty tune in a major key and slow the tempo and switch it to a minor key and the same words will have a different kind of resonance. Your emotional reaction will skew the words, take them and you somewhere else. The image above in monochrome would not be remotely the same in full colour, even if all the other components (angle, line, distance, perspective). You can write minor key scenes by adjusting the voice, focusing on greyscale images. You can then let it small dots of colour, like the first new green shoots of spring on trees

No need for completion

When we talk about rounding out characters and characterisation, remember it's not a search for completion. Some things can be left ambiguous, deliberately incomplete. Readers approach texts with their own context and emotional baggage and needs so will always see things a little differently to what you might intend. I can't read exactly what's in the character's eyes in the painting above. Compassion, curiosity, strength, need? Each viewer/reader will see both the text and their own (often unconsciously) implanted meaning. That's one of the beauties of storytelling. Go as far as you can, then step away and leave space for the audience to make meaning.

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