Re:Fiction - The Fiction Writers' Magazine

Review: "A Writer’s Guide to Characterization" by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Target Audience

Intermediate writers

About

A Writer’s Guide to Characterization is one of several books by Victoria Lynn Schmidt focusing on different aspects of the storyteller’s craft. Its blurb talks about dealing with archetypes, heroic journeys, and dynamic character development, holding out the promise of a style of character writing with similar mythical boldness to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Schmidt’s books often provide templates and guidance for using them in building a story. Unlike books such as Save the Cat that claim to provide a single framework for all stories to work off, Schmidt provides a range of different patterns and encourages the reader to play with them. In this case, the templates are for different types of characters, with a focus on what motivates them, how they interact with the world, and in particular how they interact with each other. It’s an approach that defines characters as much through their relationships with each other as through anything fundamental to the individual. 

Highlights

  • Provides useful conflicts to build stories around, all firmly rooted in characters.
  • By connecting conflict with deep rooted psychological desires, these hold out the potential to create really engaging plots.

Pros

  • Provides useful templates and ideas for characters, conflicts, and plots, all built upon Jungian ideas of human psychology.
  • Focuses on how characters’ relationships define their lives.

Cons

  • Doesn’t deliver a discussion of the fundamentals of how to shape a character, something you might expect from a book with this title. 
  • Its division of character archetypes into male and female, while useful in playing to audience expectations, will read false to writers who don’t want to see their characters defined by their gender. 
  • Addressing relationships between female and male characters in romantic terms and single-gender relationships in other ways betrays an old-fashioned attitude that could limit a story’s potential. It’s an aspect of the book’s terminology that may be best ignored.

Conclusion

This is a book that’s useful in providing archetypal characters and relationships to build stories around. Its focus on defining characters in relation to each other and not in isolation is a useful reminder that no-one exists in a vacuum. But it’s a not a book that provides the introduction to fundamentals its title promises, and it has some awkward assumptions baked in. Useful, but to be used with care.

Andrew Knighton is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people's names. He's had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His steampunk adventure series, The Epiphany Club, is out now in all e-book formats, and the first volume, Guns and Guano, is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find free stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.

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