Conveying Character with the F-H System

In the previous post, we saw that to make characters with the F-H system, we need to show characters undergoing a conflict between two emotions; and that, to make the conflict a strong one, the hero should be 49% evil, and the villian 49% good.  The character will be evil or good in ways relevant to your particular plot, and the emotional problem it poses.

Characterize With Opposing Qualities

Now, this reflects the way Foster-Harris tells us to create characters generally:  in opposing qualities.  If we are talking about a character who is strong, it is necessary to mention ways he is weak.  If we are talking about the ways a character is wise, we must mention ways she is foolish.  And so also for nice-mean, smart-stupid, religious-sinful, charitable-thrifty, and so on.

We’re not to say, the ranger was strong in these ways but weak in these others, but rather show without telling — the ranger never backs down from a fight, but he drinks; the schoolteacher gives her students excellent advice, which she herself does not follow.  He intends this advice for characters very generally:

Only the spear bearers, cowboys, posses, mobs and the like need not be vitalized by contradiction; but even they will be improved by brief exposure to the process.  Consider how our language abounds in cliches that bring things to life by teamings of opposites:

“Cowardly mob.”  “Good little devil.”  “Chivalrous foe.”  “Little giant.”  “Beloved enemy.”  And so on.  Two words in combination have the power to bestow life; one alone may not (Formulas, 73).

The pattern is not necessarily reversed for villians; a bad guy can be stronger than he is weak.  But he should still have opposing qualities.

Create Character Tags

So, for each character, you have a dominant emotional conflict — one — which is related to the character’s function in the plot, and which is manifested in some quality pair fundamental to their character.  The quality pair is never named explicitly for the reader to see.  (Neither is the dominant emotional conflict.)  Instead, the quality pair — strong-weak — is demonstrated through some bit of story, and once demonstrated, it is implicitly refered back to by the use of a tag.

The tags are just physically-observable items that represent character qualities.  We can talk about the ranger being physically strong, his muscles; we can talk about the scars on his hands from all the fistfighting he has done.  Conversely, we can talk about the whiskey flask he carries around; we can say his breath smells of alcohol; we can talk about his bloodshot eyes, or someone can remind him of what the doctor told him.  We can combine them:  He poured himself a shot of whiskey and raised it to his lips with an enormous, shaking hand.  And so on.

The schoolteacher is still abstract, so let’s specify that she tells her girls to take no nonsense from their boyfriends, but she herself is always dating the wrong kinds of men.  We can talk about their names in her address-book (or cell phone, if it’s a contemporary story), which she must always go through and cross out; we can talk about her quest to find the right color lip-liner; we can even have her applying the latest lip-liner and inspecting it critically while telling her neice not to let her boyfriend try anything — what do you think of this color, dear?

We use the tags strategically, depending on whether we want to portray the character in one light or the other at that moment — whether they are being weak or strong, wise or foolish, or some combination.  Quite simply, they save work, and allow us to give the reader an emotional grasp of who they are dealing with, more vividly than just a name permits.

Give each character two kinds of tags:  physical and behavioral — for each quality pair.  So, a character should have four tags at minimum.  Foster-Harris talks about using physical traits, like thick eyeglasses and straight teeth, to portray weakness and strength, respectively.

Test the Main Characters Before Filling In Their Background

Foster-Harris urges us to test our characters — to put them in a bind relating to their fundamental conflict — before the reader gets to know them.  Otherwise, it’s dull.  The process goes like this:

1.  Introduce the character and put them in a bind, almost in the same breath.

This is a test.  Ask yourself, “Could I use this character as the main character and still have a good story?”  If the bind is too weak, if there is not enough conflict, then the character won’t do.  Change it.

2.  Use flashbacks, dialogue, or characterization techniques of any kind (setting up your tags) to heighten the sense of conflict.

3.  Show them trying to deal with the dilemma in various ways, unsuccesfully.  Switch back and forth between 2 and 3 as needed.

4.  Bring them in this way to their Big Decision, which will be followed by their Darkest Hour or Easy Street, depending.

Describe Important Characters as Active Agents

Never use negative (in the sense of “do nothing”) central characters.  Always make this central character the one who moves, decides, does.  And when anything acts on him, as it must, do not emphasize this action, but rather your character’s reaction.  Not, “He was stunned,” for example.  Write instead, “Stunned, he fought instinctively to break that paralysis, succeedeed at last with a furious effort of will, and whirled to the attack” (Formulas, 76). 

The Main Character Must Be Dynamite!! 

F-H tells us that we must write main characters who are dynamite, who could explode at any moment.  We convey that on the introduction of the character, by conveying explicitly or implicitly, but either way clearly, that the character is highly volatile.  The character comes with a warning label, which directs the reader’s attention to the future and builds suspense.

This way, when the character is placed in an emotionally-charged situation — which he is, almost immediately — it has the effect on the reader of watching someone juggling with, to switch metaphors, nitroglycerine. 

So, you rivit the reader’s attention and focus them on future developments in the story by introducing them to a volatile character, who has a conflicted nature, and putting that character immediately in an emotional bind.

Next Up

I’ll offer some ideas for applying the F-H character system to interactive fiction, and I’ll set down Foster-Harris’s ideas about viewpoint.  He treats viewpoint before character, and says some interesting things about it, which I think could be useful to IF writers:  but it’s less clear to me right now how to port it over into a discussion of IF, so I’ve been putting it off.

I haven’t written an “enriching the system” section here, because I think it’s clear how to implement this advice in a shallow way, and how in a deeper way:  it depends on how well-thought-out your character contradictions are, and how much effort you put into coming up with subtle, elegant tags.

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Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great writing on a subject that I had never thought of before! I definitely will be working to try and implement these ideas into my writing!

  2. […] the F-H system of characterization, with one blog post on theory and strategies, and one on techniques and implementation.  The goal now will be to re-work these techniques for IF, making them suitable for the existing […]


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