Relational Characterization

Excerpted from The Secrets of Writing

Aside from the choices a character makes, and their contradictions, we have a third technique for defining them. I call it Relational Characterization.
Characters are also defined by the people they associate with. Who they choose as friends and lovers, who they make their enemies, can tell you a lot about a person. But more importantly, the manner in which people inter-relate defines their relationships with each other and reveals some of their sides.

We all react to different people in a different way. Some people turn us on. Some annoy us. Some make us mad. Some make us crazy. Some make us laugh. But not all the time. You may love your mom, but she may also drive you nuts. You may hate your boss, but you had a great time with him at the company picnic. There is a standard mode we have when dealing with certain people and there are other modes depending on our mood, the nature of the conversation, and the situation.
When you ask a friend for a loan, you probably use a different manner than when you’re talking to him about a movie or asking him what you want to do for the evening. When using relational characterization it’s important to stay aware of the context.

This is something we learn as children. We learn how to use different voices to get responses from our parents. We try different things to see what works, We continue this into adulthood. We use a different voice or inflection on people depending on the situation. We might put on our sexy voice for our lover, a high-pitched cutesy voice for our pet or children. We may use a tense, guarded voice for people we don’t trust. And this defines not only our relationships with those people, but the way we feel about them.

The way certain people effect us can create impulsive emotional responses that we later regret. If someone hurt our feelings in the past, something may remind us of that in a conversation and all of a sudden we start saying mean things. These kind of responses are useful to be aware of. Such reactions can clue the Audience to important backstory elements that are revealed later.
Like I said, choice is a powerful indicator. In most cases we choose who we love and hate. And the reasons for this can speak volumes.

When you have a character talk to another character, you really need to understand the relationship they have and how it can reveal to the Audience sides of that character we don’t usually get to see. It helps make that character seem more real and rounded out.

REMEMBER: A character is defined by their contradictions, choices, and relationships.


Symbolic Characterization

In addition to the above, there’s a little technique you can use called Symbolic Characterization. This is mainly reserved for supporting characters. But it can be used for the Hero or the Villain, if done carefully.

Symbolic characterization is used when characters appearance and lifestyles are metaphors to enhance the premise, to set mood, or establish a theme. This is usually done through the use of archetypes in archetypal settings.

Comics love to use symbolic characterization because it’s a medium of extremes. It started out showing people as exaggerated caricatures and it never quite lost that tendency.
Batman is a symbolic character. He dresses like a bat, lives (for all intents and purposes) in a cave, and only comes out at night. The Human Torch is a hot headed young man who turns into a living firebrand. Shakespeare made Richard III a ugly hunchbacked character, despite the fact that he was nothing of the kind in real life. He’s visually symbolic of his persona.
But, it’s dangerous to do this sort of thing without first making sure your character is well rounded. Otherwise they can become cartoony and unbelievable.

This hasn’t stopped a lot of comic book writers from creating characters who looked like their personas. They are exactly what the seem. If you do this, don’t expect too many readers to be impressed. It’s been done to death.

You can also use symbolic characterization in contrast to the premise. Or to enhance some theme you’re playing with in the story. There are a lot of ways to use it beyond the obvious.

REMEMBER: Characters need to be believable, even if they look strange.

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