The Table Theory of Characterization
So you’ve written a fantasy novel. It’s full of political intrigue and clashing armies, nefarious wizards and heroic last stands.
Now strip all of that away. That rollercoaster of a plot with its byzantine twists? Gone. The subtle cruelty of your antagonist? Gone. Your protagonists don’t need to rescue the princess or save the kingdom or fulfill the ancient prophecy.
If your protagonists never stumbled across The Plot of your novel (or caused it, for that matter) would they still be interesting? If they did nothing but sit around a table all night talking, would you still find yourself riveted by what they say?
This is my litmus test for writing interesting characters, and I call it The Table Theory of Characterization.
It comes out of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Oftentimes, my favorite scenes in the show would simply be listening to the banter of the crew around the dinner table. Whether it was Simon’s birthday or Mal and Zoe talking about the war or Shepherd Book pontificating on rosemary, these scenes were consistently fascinating, with excellent acting and writing. The dinner table was where they went to be family. I only wish there could have been an episode where nothing went wrong, and we could simply enjoy their camaraderie.
Under the Table Theory of Characterization, dialogue becomes much more important. Everyone speaks in a different manner. Some use different dialects, or have accents, or are using a language that’s not their native tongue. Others use more academic jargon, or vulgarities, or slang. A stoic soldier will probably speak less than a mountebank. Even among the people in your life, there are likely phrases and idioms that some people use constantly; others may find them grating.
Body language remains equally important. Are they strutting? Do they ‘mug for the camera’ when people are staring at them? Do they run their fingers through their hair when staring at someone cute? Do they stare off into space while others are talking? Everyone has small physical quirks just as much as they do verbal quirks.
It’s also important to understand how the different characters will all get along. Character dynamics are vital for strong fiction. Relationships, from romance to family to coworkers, friends, rivals, enemies, and strangers, will all affect dialogue. Even within these, there are infinite permutations—no two romances are alike. The generic wisecracker is less interesting than the person who jokes around people he trusts, or to deflect and distract from pointed criticism. Some characters may not be on speaking terms. They may have radically different beliefs or cultures. Some may flirt awkwardly with feet touching under the table. Some may be shy around some of the characters, but open and friendly with others. All of these seem like obvious, surface things, but it’s an important step in creating depth in a character.
Subtext is also vital in anything dramatic. If your characters are truly fleshed out people then they want something. The ability to dance around their true desire without saying it aloud is something almost everyone learns, generally out of fear or shame. Learning how to show the character wanting something through inference is difficult but necessary. It’s true that a character without that sort of subtext could make a fascinating counterpoint to the rest of the cast, akin to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Yet without the other characters for that innocence to bounce off of, the dramatic possibilities will be greatly lessened.
Of course, any plot that doesn’t alter the characters’ personalities in varying ways is a failure to some extent. The innocent becomes jaded while the cynic becomes more emotional. Characters must change in time due to the plot. It is of course possible for characters to change at the table. The classic play and film Twelve Angry Men is the perfect example of this. Yet at its core the Table Theory of Characterization is merely meant to be a starting place for making certain the characters are not merely ciphers for the plot, but truly fleshed out people with their own idiosyncratic goals, histories, personalities, and relationships.
Title image by Kazuya Takahashi.