Many new writers struggle with characterization. If you’re trained in the literary mainstream, you’re taught that stories are about characters. In other words, the character is the “focus” of the story. That’s simply not true. Some stories do focus on characters, but many of the best tales don’t.
Orson Scott Card pointed this out eloquently in a book years ago with his “MICE” quotient. He suggested that when we tell tales, we often aren’t interested in the characters in a story at all. If you look at classic science fiction stories, for example, sometimes it is an “Idea” that is being explored rather than a character. What if you had a mirror that showed your reflection—but only from fourteen years ago? That was the idea behind a series of tales about “slow glass.” What if aliens invade the earth, only to discover giant creatures called humans? You may have seen the episode on a sci-fi series, where a child finds a “toy” spaceship and promptly destroys it. Is the child the focus of such a tale? Of course not. And he shouldn’t be.
What if a comet was about to hit the earth and destroy it? What would you do? In such a tale, you really want to focus on a character who is an “every man,” someone that the reader can relate to, not a character who is strange and obtuse.
Another type of story often focuses on the “milieu” of the story, the time and place that tale is set. Certain readers love reading medieval fantasy, for example. It may not matter if your wizard is pretty much just like Gandalf. If you create a milieu that is intriguing, it will draw readers. You’ve seen milieu stories in historical novels, in romances, in gothic horror, Westerns, hard-boiled detective novels, and so on. Some critics will often complain that modern stories often seem more like “travelogues” than real novels, and they’re right. Set a love story in Rio, or Rome, or Moscow, and it’s likely to sell well even if your protagonists ain’t all that riveting.
Of course, there are stories where the character is central to the tale. The movie Forrest Gump really is about the character of Forrest Gump, with his simplistic mindset, his naïve optimism, and his heart-breaking loneliness.
Scott Card created his acronym MICE to help readers remember that not all stories can or should focus on character. In his acronym, he uses “idea” and “event” for two of his acronyms, but I personally don’t see them as being much different. However, there is a type of story that I see as vital that he doesn’t mention, and I’ll call that the “Emotion” story. We buy tales based upon the emotions they trigger—romance, adventure, horror, humor, wonder. Sometimes, the tale is more about arousing that emotion than anything else. Years ago, the novel The Bridges of Madison County was a big hit. I read it to see what the fuss was all about. I don’t recall the names of the protagonists. They weren’t that interesting. I don’t recall the milieu, a single bridge, or even what state Madison County was supposed to be in. The milieu didn’t come to life. But the emotion triggered in the tale, the sense of romance and loss in that story, still lingers.
So you can have stories where the characters are only of minor importance. Or you can have tales where only some things are important. You might have a mICe story, for example—where a man finds himself in the center of a bank as it is being robbed, and because of his unique skills and mindset, he becomes central to what happens. Or you might have a MicE story, one where the milieu and the emotion are woven together inextricably.
The real point here is: Don’t get brainwashed into thinking that every character in your story must be fleshed out. Sometimes the doorman in your tale is just the guy who holds the door. I’ve read a number of books and articles over the years about how to write characterization, and while I’ve found a few gems of advice, the truth is that most of the advice that I’ve gotten was just gravel.
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Author Mette Ivie Harrison, whose adult mystery The Bishop's Wife is about a Mormon bishop's wife in Draper, Utah who solves crime by baking bread, offering to babysit people's children, and then gets into filing cabinets and searches for secrets to solve crime, is offering a chance to meet with her editor, Juliet Grames, from Soho Press. The one-day writing retreat will take place Saturday September 27 in Layton, Utah and will cost $100 for a 10 page manuscript review by Juliet and a private consult, as well as other programming about writing. If you're interested in getting on a list for more information, contact Mette at firstname.lastname@example.org.