Monday, June 10, 2013

On Writing: Characterization and Attitude

We all know what it means to have attitude. And I'm sure we all know what it means to give attitude, too! But what does attitude have to do with your characters?

Don't look at me in that tone of voice!

Okay, first let's make sure we're all on the same page regarding the definition of "attitude," because it's used it in different ways.  Attitude can mean a personal viewpoint or general opinion about something.  It can also mean a challenging or arrogant manner.  And it can mean a physical posture or bodily position. 

So "attitude" is not only the way a person thinks about something, or the arrogant manner in which they're expressing themselves, it's also the way they are physically standing or holding themselves.  And how can you use that when you're writing?

Let's workshop it - with attitude to spare!

Try combining all three of those ideas and applying them to your character.  Let's say you're writing about a woman who's having an argument with her fourteen-year-old daughter.  What's the daughter's attitude?  Let's break it down:

Her personal viewpoint is that she wants her curfew extended to one a.m. so she can go to her best friend's birthday party. 

Is she displaying a challenging, arrogant manner?  You bet your boots she is!  But how does your reader know that?

Well, what's the typical physical posture of a girl arguing with her mom? 

Joanna's hands welded to her hips as her elbows fanned the kitchen air. 

Grace looked up from the bread dough she was kneading.  If that child rolled her eyes one more time, she was definitely going to suffer some serious vision damage.  Or at the very least she'd be grounded for the rest of her life.

"You're fourteen, my dear daughter," Grace said, with as much patience as she could muster.  "There's no way you're staying out until one in the morning!"

Joanna's mouth pulled up on one side as she gave vent to her weakest argument yet.  "Oh please, Mother, you wouldn't dare keep me home," she smirked, "everyone's going to this party."

Okay, obviously those two have a lot of issues to work out.  And I didn't exactly play to subtlety there, with the arms-akimbo, eye-rolling, smirking teenager.  I'm sure you've got a good idea of Joanna's character (at least in relation to curfew and the importance of big parties).  But did you also get an idea of Grace's character?  The bread-kneading, line-holding mom?  Well, that brings up an interesting point, which is this:

You get a good idea of someone's character by their reaction to the attitude of another person.  It's not just the actions your characters take, it's their reaction to the actions of others which will give the reader a concept of who these people are.

But what if the character in question doesn't have quite as much of a challenging arrogant manner?  What if he or she is, for lack of a better term, a human doormat?

Let's workshop it again - and don't give me any of your attitude!

So let's say your character is Harvey, a storeroom clerk in his late forties.  A shipment has come in without the proper paperwork, and technically he's not supposed to accept it.

His personal viewpoint is that he should not sign for the delivery.

Is he displaying a challenging, arrogant manner?  In this case, no.

And what about his bodily position?  Well, let's see:

Harvey wiped his palm on his khaki shorts and pulled the clipboard closer for another inspection.  "I have specific instructions not to accept any shipments from your company unless they have the proper TPS forms attached."  He heard the quiver in his voice and swallowed, trying to steady it.  Dealing with these paperwork issues always made him shaky.  What if he screwed it up - again? 

He forced his rounded shoulders square and handed the clipboard back, using the most decisive motion he could muster. "Sorry."  It didn't help that now his hand, as well as his voice, was shaking.

The brownshirted delivery man held up his hands like somebody at gunpoint.  But this guy wasn't surrendering.  "No can do, bra," he said with a smile.  "Can't take it back, gotta leave it here."

The sweat made its way from Harvey's palms to the back of his neck.  He could feel it beading on his upper lip.  Was this guy serious?  What was Harvey going to do if the delivery guy wouldn't take the package back with him?  The meatball sub that Harvey had eaten for lunch was starting to come back on him, emitting a foul acid that crept up his throat.  He needed to have a glass of milk and lie down.

"I guess I could find a place in back for it, as long as you promise me you'll bring those forms tomorrow."

"Sure thing bra," the delivery guy said.  "No problemo."

Poor Harvey.  He's sweaty, slump-shouldered and has stomach problems.  And do you think that the delivery guy is going to bring those forms in tomorrow?  No, me neither.

Lack of attitude can tell your readers just as much about your characters as attitude can.  When something unpleasant confronts Harvey, does he attack or retreat?  He probably lies down with a glass of milk.

But what about Joanna, from the example above?  How would she have handled the delivery guy?  Well, she probably would have made some cutting comment about his shorts not being kind to his knobby knees, and then gone back to filing her nails. 

Summing up the attitude issue

With attitude and characterization, keep these things in mind:

  • The person's posture and physicality: what does it say about them?
  • Their reaction to events: when confronted with something pleasant or unpleasant, how do they react?
  • Getting what they want: how do they go about it?
  • Remember that attitude is not necessarily a bad thing!  If Joanna used those same mannerisms when dealing with a bully at school, we'd be cheering for her.

When was the last time you saw someone "giving attitude"?  What did it tell you about them?  And what did it say about the person on the receiving end of that attitude?


  1. Awesome advice, Misha! I love that you've included examples, too. If this post doesn't provide a new way to wrap a writer's head around characterization, I don't know what would!

  2. Thank you, Misha. Wonderful blog. Can't talk enough about character.

  3. Thanks Nic! It's fun to look at things from a different angle sometimes! :-)

  4. So glad you liked it, Deborah! I agree: can never go too deep into character! :-)

  5. Wow! Great post, Misha. Great, concrete examples that really show readers/writers exactly how to portray character attitude. Nicely done. ;0)

  6. Misha!! I'm working on a scene right now, trying to nail the correct attitude for my hero. From what he does with his body to how he reacts to the current situation. Thanks for the reminder, though, that good characterization is a two-way street. Or a multi-way intersection. Whatever! It's not just the POV character's attitude a writer needs to concern herself with - the other character(s) in the scene aren't cardboard and need their own attitude to carry through their motivation. Love it!

  7. I loved this, Misha! What a great point, that it's not just a character's action that reveals who they are, but their reactions as well. Thanks for the terrific examples! The last time I saw someone giving attitude, I was on the receiving end of it. I was proud of myself for walking away instead of making the situation worse, but yeah, sometimes I do need to channel a little Joanna. :-) By the way, I have Still Waters and I'm really looking forward to reading it!

  8. Love the blog Misha. There are so many nuances to characterization. I once was in a writing class with a woman who I thought was writing a thriller because of the uneverving things her character did and said.

    I was dumbfounded to find out that woman I though was a serial killer was the heroine and the story was a romance!!!

    It's all in the nuance of attitude, body language and the said and unsaid.

    Thanks for poking me to think about these things.