In my continuing series of writing and The Godfather, I’d like to tackle the subject of characterization in writing. In my first post, Writers Workshop – Show Don’t Tell And The Godfather, I talked about the need to show our story. Characterization in writing builds on the concepts in that post, as creating great characters is all about showing who these people are, not telling the reader about them.
Writers Workshop – What Is Characterization?
Characterization is a complex issue in writing and it means different things to different authors. The basic definition of characterize is to describe or portray the particular qualities, features or traits of a character. Fine, what does that really mean? To me, you have to make your characters grow and evolve in your story, and you have to make them come alive for your readers. This goes beyond just having a character talk with an accent or run around your novel pouting all the time. Your readers need to understand why your characters are doing what they’re doing, and those actions need to match the personality traits you gave your characters OR if the action doesn’t match, your readers need to understand why.
Writers Workshop – Characterization And The Godfather
As I said in my last post, I think The Godfather (both the book and the movie) are brilliant for many reasons. As I was thumbing through the beginning of the book, I was struck again by Puzo’s characterization. In the first twenty or so pages, as we sit in on the wedding of Connie, the Don’s daughter, we have Puzo give us the first strokes of characterization, but I think he does this brilliantly. He describes the characters some but he lets a lot of aspects of who the characters are come out in conversation between Kay and Michael. It’s a great way of building up who these people are through stories and dialogue that engages the reader.
Writers Workshop – Sonny Corleone
Let’s again look at The Godfather. Puzo is a master at character development. Look at older boy Sonny. He’s a hothead, a womanizer, and he’s in line to take over the family business (because Michael doesn’t want to be involved), but he’s also caring. From the beginning, we know these things about Sonny. This is why it’s possible for us to believe how Sonny is set up for his own death. If Sonny was level-headed and calm, we wouldn’t buy the set-up.
Writers Workshop – Don Corleone
I could write pages on the Don’s characterization. This is what I think is amazing – this man is a mafia boss, a killer. And yet we sympathize with this man. The Don is written so masterfully that we buy into him as a family man, someone who is just looking out for his family. He’s just another average working stiff who comes home and is the doting husband and father. We only get a glimpse of pain when the Don finds out that Michael was the one who killed the police chief and Sollozzo. And we buy this grief as well. Why? Because up to this point, Michael has been billed as the good son, the one who wouldn’t be involved in the business. And it’s clear that the Don wanted it this way. And so we buy into his grief.
Writers Workshop – Michael Corleone
I want to study Michael’s character a bit more because I think it’s just brilliantly done in both the movie and the book. Right from the beginning, we know that Michael is a smart man, educated, and he’s a war hero. Let me emphasize, he’s a war hero. This is a tiny way of communicating heaps of who Michael is. He’s a war hero – implied – he’s a leader. We also hear early on that the family would rather Michael be a senator. The book has a short couple of sentences that let us know that Michael is the perfect person to take over the family business, but in the description of Michael’s military service, we clearly see that he is not going to be a part of this. Because of this characterization, it’s easy for us to buy into Michael’s transition.
Writers Workshop – Michael Corleone’s Transition Part One
We see the beginning of Michael’s transition to being head of the family when he protects his father at the hospital. I discussed this scene in my prior post from a showing not telling standpoint, but it’s also important to see who Michael is as a character. He is calm, quick on his feet, he does not panic, and most of all, he leads those around him. This is crucial character development.
Writers Workshop – Michael Corleone’s Transition Part Two
Michael is not naive to who his family is. In both the book and the movie, he’s very matter-of-fact about who his father is and why his father does what he does. It’s about the family. And we also see Michael from the beginning that Michael should be the one to take over the family business. But this doesn’t happen until the Don is almost killed. Then Michael steps in. He’s not a hothead like Sonny, he doesn’t see the need to go after everyone, come what may. He’s thoughtfully put together a plan to avenge his father and save the business. I love this part in the movie. The camera starts out far away from Michael and as he talks, it slowly moves in closer to him. He is now center stage, the leader. This is his transition into the business. This is when he becomes the leader of the family (even though he leaves for a time). There is no turning back. And we know this as readers (or viewers). Again, if the whole set-up of Michael’s character had not been skillfully written up to this point, we wouldn’t buy into his transition, and we would be left feeling cheated.
Writers Workshop – Michael Corleone’s Transition Complete
By the time we get to the end of The Godfather, we fully accept that Michael is the head of the family. And we buy it. We’ve seen Michael’s character develop into this. And we buy this irony as well. The Don didn’t want Michael in the business, yet Michael is perfect for the role, and he ends up just as his father was, a man who orchestrates violence and yet feels he is only doing this to provide for and to protect his family. It’s brilliant irony as well as character development.
Writers Workshop – Final Thoughts
Books could be devoted to the character development in The Godfather. If you watch the movie or read the book, pay attention to how Puzo develops his characters. It’s truly the thing that keeps you turning pages. And if you want to write great stories, develop the craft of characterization. Because one thing is certain, if you don’t write your characters well, your readers will be disappointed.