"Breathing Life Into Your Characters," Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.

Pros: Fascinating application of psychology to writing that pulls on many theories and disciplines
Cons: Repetitive, slightly self-important in a few places, and a little careless in one or two places
Rating: 4 out of 5

First posted 11/17/2003
Review copy courtesy of Writer’s Digest Books

“Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to give your characters emotional and psychological depth” is a writer’s book on characterization by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D., a writing consultant and psychotherapist. I can sum up my feelings on this book surprisingly easily for once. I absolutely love the material and think that it has a great deal of value, but there were a few issues of presentation that really bugged me.

Don’t worry; I’ll elaborate!

Content

This book strives to use the discipline of psychology to help you endow your characters with realistic depth and dimension. This approach particularly intrigued me as I have a strong interest in both psychology and writing. There’s a ton of useful information in here. Archetypes, inner and outer goals, personal transformations, motivators, inner selves, “method writing” (yes, it’s like method acting), passions, self-esteem, private and public selves, and desperation:

Don’t ever say, “My character would never steal,” or “My character would never cheat.” Given enough desperation and faced with a harsh enough environment, your character can be motivated to steal, lie, cheat, or even die for something she wants or needs.

You can learn to access your characters’ shadow side, create realistic and believable villains, imbue your work with intensity, conflict, and emotions, and take your characters on emotional journeys. Conflict and action have their place here, including a discussion of sources and patterns of conflict, and an invaluable list of the defense mechanisms people tend to engage in. Chapter 9 talks about “dysfunctional families: secrets, myths, and lies” (there’s a nifty section on the family triangle dynamic, compelling information on the family dynamics created by alcoholism and drug abuse, and eye-opening details about family myths), and there’s information on mental disorders as well. It ends with a great chapter on everything your character says without saying a word: body language, mannerisms, tone of voice, and so on.

The material is accessible to a layman, but still useful to someone who already has an interest in psychology. While it delves primarily into using your emotions to help you create emotional characters, it does discuss some ways in which you shouldn’t go overboard with this. There’s information on avoiding over-sentimentality, and an entire chapter entitled “less of you: creating characters different from yourself.”

Exercises

The exercises push you to delve into aspects of your own memories, emotions, and personality that you might not be comfortable with. At times I felt like I was learning more about how my family worked than my characters’. That’s the point, though–the author believes that you can’t create realistic characters that feel the wide range of human emotions if you don’t even know what those emotions feel like yourself. You can’t understand how other families work until you have a better handle on your own. But this isn’t an approach that everyone is going to want to take, and some people may have good reasons for avoiding it (see the second of my presentation issues, below).

Just be aware of this aspect of “Breathing Life into Your Characters,” and be sure that you’re willing to go there if you decide to buy this book–the exercises are a serious part of the material, not a glued-on afterthought.

Yes, But Does It Work?

I’m inevitably working on at least one piece of writing at any given time, so I use whatever book I’m reading to try to work out some of the issues I’m having currently. It just so happens that I had some characters that needed help when I got this book, and I decided to use this book to flesh them out.

I think I went into it with a pretty open mind, and not many preconceptions about whether or not it would work. But I was surprised to find out just how much of a difference this book can make. Obviously I didn’t try every exercise; I tried a few that struck me as interesting or handy, and occasionally I just said, “hey, that’s a neat question or concept; I should look at my characters from that angle.” Not only did I end up with much more complex and interesting characters, but I also found that plot issues, scenes, themes, and connections seemed to magically form out of the web of character information I was putting together. I was honestly impressed by the results.

Presentation Issues

Repetition: One of the things I didn’t enjoy about this book was the tendency to hammer certain points home over and over and over again. Somewhere around page 112 I found myself thinking that it would be interesting to write down a handful of the book’s major points and note how many times the author makes each of them over the course of the book. (But that would have required re-reading the entire first half of the book, and that seemed a tad over-obsessive even for me.) Toward the end of the book this gets much better.

No Caveats on Memory Work: Dr. Ballon stresses the value of exploring memories and releasing our emotions, with few if any caveats about this process. I think this is a little bit careless. There are circumstances under which exploring traumatic memories without the supervision of a trained therapist can do more harm than good, and I think she should have at least mentioned this.*

Sweeping Generalizations and Absolutes: I almost always find it annoying when writers indulge in sweeping generalizations and absolutes. For everyone who sees an issue one way, you’re almost bound to find someone who sees it a different way. This is particularly true when talking about what constitutes a good story–all you have to do is look around at the wide variety of ratings on most books on sites such as Amazon.com to see that everyone wants something different out of the stories they read.

So at best you sound self-important; at worst you alienate your audience. The various phrases like “in any good story” and “in all good writing” that litter parts of this book seriously pushed my Pet Peeve Button. The irony is that I agree with most of her sweeping statements, but her extreme stance made me balk against them. Which just goes to show why making such statements can be counter-productive. (Okay, so it probably says just as much about how contrary I am. Moving right along…)

Ultimately…

One of the things I was looking forward to doing was comparing this book to Nancy Kress’ “Dynamic Characters,” which I loved. As it turns out, I can’t really do that. These books do not at all occupy the same niche, even though they both set out to fulfill the goal of helping writers to create interesting fictional characters. In fact, I’d say they’re almost completely complementary. “Dynamic Characters” works from the outside in, while “Breathing Life into Your Characters” works from the inside out. I think that you could read one right after the other and not feel as though you’ve wasted your time (although as Kress’ writing has more wit and humor to it, you might want to save it for second).

For all my complaints about the presentation issues, they’re just that–presentation issues. They’re annoyances that plenty of readers won’t share. When it comes down to it, this is a very useful book that is almost certain to benefit your fiction-writing as much as it did mine.

A brief afterword on the Heffron “conspiracy”

As I noted in my last review of a writing book, the name of Jack Heffron seems to pop up somewhere in almost every writing book I’ve ever read. I just wanted to let my loyal readers know that I found it in the second paragraph of the acknowledgments section of this book. Yes, he really is everywhere!

*See The Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, by Glenn R. Schiraldi

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