Character vs. Characterization

I am presently reading the book “Story” by Robert McKee. I’m reading it in preparation for a class on Dramatic Writing I will be teaching beginning next month. I will have to say that it is one of the best books on writing I have ever read–and I have read quite a few of them.

I am a big proponent of writers broadening their horizons and learning to write in other media and other disciplines. A lot can be said for novelists learning how to write news stories, or personality profiles, or poetry. Each contributes ideas and discipline that helps a writer hone his or her craft, regardless of what or where that craft is.

One of the sections that particularly got to me in McKee’s book this morning was his view on Character vs. Characterization. According to McKee, characterization is telling about physical, mental, and other attributes of a person in your story. What they look like, where they come from, etc. Character, on the other hand, is who they are.

He uses the illustration of two people driving on the freeway; one, a successful neurosurgeon, the other, an illegal alien working as a housekeeper. In front of them, a school bus crashes. Who will stop to help the children caught in the flaming wreck? Both have something to lose. If both stop, who will call 911 and wait, and who will climb inside? And then what choices will they make regarding who is saved and who is not? If it comes down to a choice between each character saving another child and losing their own life, will they do it?

McKee writes: “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure–the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

He goes on to state that in many ways, learning what the protagonist’s true character is often the main purpose of the story. As I read this, I think of several of my own stories and ask myself: Did my story take it far enough to learn who my protagonist really was? If not, why not?

It is a question that I think every novelist should ask himself or herself. To be honest, I am not sure that I did my protagonist’s complete justice. And so I think I will try to remember this question, this challenge, with the story I am working on.