Writing Tips – Characterization

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CREATING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS

Points To Ponder:

— The strongest impressions are made by what characters do in the story, what their motives are and what they have done in the past.  If a guy spills a drink at a party, talks too loud and makes rude remarks we assume he has alcohol issues.  Motive changes that.  The guy’s behavior takes on different meaning if we learn his wife died recently of cancer.  Knowing someone’s past, and reputation, helps us understand them.  But, don’t provide the information in big chunks.  It’s disruptive.  Flashbacks slow action.  Rather, have one character tell another a meaningful story.  Even better, insert quick references into the narrative.  The past can also be implied.  If a girl cringes away from someone, we know she has been abused.

— We sympathize with characters like us, but find them boring.  We are threatened by people who are different but they intrigue us.  Characters who violate stereotypes are particularly interesting.  Throw in a twist.  If a drunk guy at a party is a drug counselor, we want to know more.

— A person’s habits and behaviors are revealing, and are more noticeable if they are annoying.  We pay more attention to people who get drunk at parties than we do to people who exercise regularly.  Modifying a habit is a way to show us a character has changed.

— Exaggerating personal traits can make characters more interesting but too much exaggeration and they become unbelievable.  Major characters must be believable.  Minor characters can be exaggerated, or be a stereotype, because they need only advance the story, relieve tension or convey information.

— Talent is revealing.  It doesn’t have to be extreme, like professional athletic ability.  Maybe the character is an older detective still good with his fists.  You can enhance the trait by showing him working out or sparing at the gym.

— Personal taste is important.  Do characters prefer wine or beer?  Do they like to ski or are they couch potatoes?

— Physical appearance provides insight.  It can show how characters feel about themselves or how others react to them, but physical description alone isn’t enough.  Reading about a woman brushing her blonde hair while gazing at her brown eyes in the mirror isn’t revealing.  Don’t be predictable.  Pretend the character is a friend and you have to describe her to someone.  You might say that although she dresses Goth, all in black, she voted republican in the last several elections.  That reveals more than knowing she has blonde hair and brown eyes.  You can create short tags that set characters apart.  In the Harry Potter books, we get a vivid picture through minimum description:  Harry has green eyes, a lightening-shaped scar and round glasses.

— Provide characters with different voices.  You don’t want them all to sound the same.  Magazine editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada has a distinctive voice.  She doesn’t scream or yell.  She’s quietly cutting.  Her snobbish superiority comes through very clearly.

Forming characters in different types of stories:

— In setting stories, like Gulliver’s Travels, the milieu dictates what characters are needed.  If they’re stereotypes that’s okay because the environment is the star.  People at odds with the setting can add interest.  In Louisiana, people may move slower because of the heat.  Adding a New Yorker could enhance differences.

— In idea stories, such as mysteries where a question or problem is posed at the beginning, in-depth characterization is not vital.  Giving characters a few eccentricities may be enough.  These characters rarely change.  They are trying to discover the nature of other characters to solve the problem.

— In event stories, there is disorder of some kind such as an evil force bent on destruction ala Sauron in Lord of the Rings.  Drama is generated by the effort to restore the old system or set up a new one.  Characterization is not as important as plot.

— In character stories, people are trying to change their roles because their positions are intolerable.  The action does not begin when these roles are established but when the situation comes to a head.  Relationships between people are vital.  The story ends when characters find new roles, accept their old ones or despair of ever changing.  Characters in these stories, especially the protagonist, must be fully realized. 

Not all characters are created equal:

— Characters who appear briefly don’t need to be developed.  They can be stereotypes.  They shouldn’t attract attention.  The minute they leave the background, we must learn more about them.

— Minor characters are important to the plot but we don’t need to care about them.  They help set a mood, add humor or make the setting more complete.  Make them memorable by exaggerating them, or have them be eccentric or obsessive.

— We must be made to love, hate or fear major characters.  We must care.  These characters should appear early.  It’s their story and we need to know what happens to them in the end.  Their actions and desires drive the plot.  Focus attention on them.  Have others look at them, listen to them or talk about them.  If characters appear often, they are major, especially if they talk a lot.  When they do appear, what they say and do should effect the plot.  The more charming or endearing they are, the more we will come to care.  If the story is in a certain character’s point of view, we understand he or she is the protagonist.

Options to make readers care about characters:

— Make them suffer, or inflict, physical or emotional pain.  The more intensely they feel it, the more we will too.  The suffering shouldn’t be trivial or unbearable.  Physical pain is easier because it involves no preparation.  Emotional pain must be explained.  If a guy at a party is drinking because his wife died of cancer, show the couple at a happy point in their marriage.  Suffering loses effectiveness over time.  We don’t want characters to whine.  Show cause and effect.  Show how much the drunk guy loved his wife, rather than his grief.  If characters are trying to cope with their pain, we cry for them.  If characters cry, we don’t have to.  When characters are self-sacrificing, we find their suffering more intense.  When villains willingly inflict pain, we fear and loathe them more.

— Put them in jeopardy.  Anticipating fear or loss is riveting.  When characters are threatened, we focus on them.  The more helpless they are, or the more terrible the danger, the more we care.  That’s why putting children in danger is so powerful.  Jeopardy magnifies the stalker, the savior and the prey.  Pain and jeopardy work well together, however we must believe the dreaded event is plausible.

— Create sexual tension.  If two characters become important to each other, tension increases, especially if the attraction is negative.  The more rivalry, contempt or anger characters feel the better.  Sexual tension dissipates when characters are in harmony.

— Provide signs or omens.  If characters are fighting in the midst of a turbulent storm it increases our anxiety.  Even a police siren going off in the background signals danger.  If a character’s fate is linked to larger consequences, our reaction is greater.  Opening the Ark of the Covenant will do more than harm Indiana Jones, it will unleash untold supernatural power.

— Put two sympathetic characters in conflict.  While we need to sympathize with “good” characters, stronger reactions are created when two sympathetic characters fight.  We are emotionally torn, anguished.

— Help us like the main character.  Even if he or she is repulsive, provide a few likable qualities.  Making us care about a weird or unpleasant character is hard.  Make characters familiar enough in the beginning so we relate to them, but find ways to make them different too.

— Make characters do the unexpected.  That makes them compelling.

— Give characters contradictions:  a kindergarten teacher who is a dominatrix; a vegan who wears fur.

— Provide characters with one vivid detail that makes them unforgettable.

— Switch up roles.  Have “good” characters do “bad” things, and “bad” characters do “good” things.

— Give characters strength but also a glaring weakness.  Come up with a problem that shows this weakness or give them an agonizing decision to make.  This provides drama.  Giving your main characters obstacles along the way highlights the traits you have chosen to help or hinder them.

Options to create lovable characters:

— Make them physically attractive or repulsive.  It’s harder to love mediocrity.   

— Make them victims, but show they had no choice but to succumb, and that they refuse to give into despair.  You want them vulnerable not weak.

— Make them saviors.  We admire courage and responsibility even if rescue attempts fail.  Do not let them plunge into situations mindlessly.  They should be reluctant to intervene but the need for intervention should be urgent.  It’s helpful to have a signal that the victim wants rescuing.

— Make them self-sacrificing.  We admire characters who think of others first, but don’t make them martyrs.  They should have no choice, and the cause must be important.

— Give them specific hopes and dreams.  They shouldn’t just react.  They need to have a life affected by unfolding events.  You can get readers to sympathize with any need, no matter how unsavory, if you show us why.  If the main character is rich and spends millions on cars we might be annoyed until we learn he was dirt poor as a child and the family’s only car was repossessed.  When a story is about what characters need they become almost irresistibly sympathetic.

— Make them take physical, social or financial risks.  We will worry about them, but only if they play fair.  If characters do things in an underhanded way, we lose sympathy.  No one likes a coward or a cheat.

— Give them a good attitude.  We don’t like complainers.  We like responsible people with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor who try to solve their problems.  We like people who are modest.

— Let them see things from the point of view of others.  Let them listen.  Let them trust. — Let them volunteer and not be drafted.  However, if the situation will bring fortune or fame, we prefer people who don’t put themselves forward but wait to be called on.  We have more admiration for people who have greatness thrust upon them. 

— Make them dependable.  If they break their word, they better have a good reason and make up for it.

— Make them clever, but be careful with obvious displays of intelligence because it can convey arrogance.  Let characters be surprised by their own brilliance.

— Give them imperfections.  Han Solo in Star Wars is boastful.  He’s motivated by greed and self-interest.  He doesn’t pay his bills.  But he’s also attractive, brave, clever and has a good sense of humor.  His flaws make us love him.

— Make them somehow extraordinary.  We don’t want stories that duplicate life.  We want new experiences, and to learn something.  Characters should have traits that help define them that develop throughout the story. This can be anything from great humor to the ability to solve crimes with complex clues.

— Make them compassionate.  Characters will be more likable if they care more about others than themselves.  This can be useful early in the story to help us connect with them and remain interested in their development.

Options to create compelling villains:

— Show them deliberately causing someone else to suffer.  If they enjoy it, we hate them more.  Make the sadism believable.  It isn’t about the love of pain.  It’s the wish to control others.  Think of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  She didn’t hurt people, but used her power to torment inmates who couldn’t fight back. 

— Give them evil motives.  They can’t just commit crime, they have to have reasons.

— Allow them to single-mindedly push their way to the top, or to usurp authority.  We don’t like characters with little humanity, or those who don’t earn their place.

— Have them break promises or betray trust.

— Let them speak formally or precisely.  We tend to dislike characters who use big words.  We resent and fear people who are better educated.  If they have an attitude of superiority, we hate them more.

— Give them mental instability.  We dislike characters who don’t act rationally, who can’t be talked to, or reasoned with.  If they manage to convince others their reality is valid, like Adolph Hitler or Charles Manson, we hate them more.  Don’t just describe the instability by telling us they have a blank stare, darting eyes or nervous tics.  Show us their bad behavior.  (Note:  instability can work for minor characters if it makes them harmlessly eccentric.)

— Don’t allow them to laugh at themselves.  Have them whine, complain and blame others.  Have them take credit for other people’s work and boast about their accomplishments.  They should have little regard for other people’s feelings, judge others unfairly and have an inability to trust.  They should treat the rich better than the poor.  Other people exist only to serve their purposes.

— Don’t allow them to be completely evil.  Creating conflicting sympathy ratchets up emotion.  Give us the villain’s version of events.  Partially justify their actions.  Give them compensating virtues.  Maybe they have someone they truly love; maybe they were deeply wronged.  We don’t have to like them but they should garner our respect.  By giving villains some good traits you make them better adversaries, but don’t make them completely sympathetic.  Don’t deny they did the terrible deed, or that the deed was terrible.  You can soften our hatred but you don’t want us sympathizing with them more than the protagonist.

Options to create comic characters:

— Give us clues they shouldn’t be taken seriously.  They can’t be totally believable.  We need to be able to laugh at their misfortune.

— Don’t allow them to be amused by their own wit.

— Have them downplay the importance of their problems.  For example, allow the hero to mock the villain when the villain is winning.

— Make them odd.  Defy a stereotype.  Think of Fran Drescher in The Nanny; a gorgeous woman with an awful voice.  Have them wear odd clothing.

Should Characters Change or Transform Over The Course of the Book?

Many writing sources insist characters must transform.  Not necessarily.  It depends on the type of character you’re creating.

— Some characters have one goal and a personality that doesn’t change like James Bond.  He gets a mission and his motivation is to pursue it until the end.  He remains suave, resourceful and brave throughout.  These kinds of characters aren’t found only in popular fiction.  George and Lennie, in Of Mice and Men, have one goal — to earn enough money to buy a farm.  Their personalities stay the same.  George is the planner and caretaker; Lennie the well-meaning bumbler who invites tragedy.  If you are writing this kind of book, present the character and the goal early and clearly.

— Some characters have a goal but it changes in response to events while their personalities remain the same.  They are essentially admirable from the start like Jane Eyre.  She is plain, but spunky and moral.  It’s her motivation that changes.  At first, she is fighting to survive.  Later, she wants to marry Mr. Rochester.  More motivations follow as she learns the truth.  In these stories, characters stay steady as each goal is met and events supply other motivations.  Success depends on creating strong, interesting characters and compelling plots.

— Some characters have one goal but their personality or beliefs change trying to meet it.  Character transformation is often the point of the story.  Piper’s overriding goal, in Orange is the New Black, is to survive a 15-month prison stint and get out unscathed.  While jailed, she accepts responsibility for her actions.  She learns to relate to people outside her class.  In this type of story, characters change in response to events so they must have emotional responses to them.  Don’t just tell us they’ve changed.  Show us through things they do now that they didn’t do before.  Provide a major example at the end so we know the change isn’t temporary.  (In these stories, characters don’t have to meet their goal and be happy.  They can fail and end sadder but wiser.  They can meet the goal but be disappointed in the result.)

— Some characters have goals that change throughout the story as do their personalities.  This is the most complex type of fiction.  Ensign Willie Keith’s goals, in The Caine Mutiny, change many times as he goes from not wanting to serve in the military to wanting to become a good naval officer.  His personality also changes as he evolves from being self-centered and looking for easy answers to a man who accepts his duty and believes it worthwhile.  This is an ambitious kind of book to write.  The goals as well as the belief systems of characters must change and we must be shown these changes.  Characters must display plausible emotions as changes occur and changes must be validated by the character’s subsequent actions.

Specific Actions To Take:

— One key to creating memorable characters is consistency:  Keep a record of the names you use as well as other significant details about each character using a notebook or computer software such as Scrivener.

— Character names are important.  They suggest ethnicity and conjure up certain images. They help us know who is who.  Make them easy to pronounce.  You don’t want us stumbling over names each time they appear.  That disrupts flow.  Major character names should all start with a different letter, but don’t go crazy and use too many flamboyant ones or it becomes distracting.  On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into a rut using typical names like Smith or Jones.  Think about changing the number of syllables so that Mrs. Bright becomes Mrs. Brightman.  Change the accent from the first syllable to the second so that Seaver becomes Sevain.  Start with a vowel, such as Erdman instead of Rodman.  To avoid confusion, the narrator should refer to each character by the same name all the time.

—In the planning stage, ask yourself what can go wrong?  There is no story unless something does.  Bad things need to happen.  Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

—It can be useful to use a worksheet or questionnaire to develop characters.  Such forms can be found online or be self-created.  The forms ask basic questions:  name, height, weight.  They also ask questions about the character’s fears and expectations.  When, or if, you use the forms is entirely up to you.  Some writers plan extensively before they write.  Others prefer to do a rough draft and have some working knowledge of characters before they refine them.

— Give your characters fully realized pasts.  Whether you jot down a few notes about their lives before the book starts, or do a full treatment of their back story, this will round them out.  You may never use any of the information, but it will help you know them better so you can define them for us.

— Use all five senses when describing your characters in terms of what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.

— Use people you know to bring characters to life.  Having someone in mind, helps make characters believable because you are familiar with them and their idiosyncrasies. If you use people you know as the basis for characters, make sure you change them enough so family and friends don’t recognize themselves.  Make new people out of the old.  They don’t have to look the same or have the same career.  Another option, is to find pictures of what your characters look like and refer to them often.

You only have a few pages to hook readers.  You must provide at least a general idea of what’s happening early on, a reason to care, and belief that characters would act a certain way.  Good luck and happy writing!

14 thoughts on “Writing Tips – Characterization

  1. Thank you for stopping by my blog and following. You have a great one! This Writing tips are so useful. My daugher loves to write. She is working on her first novel (she is 16, so she has a long way to go). I will refer your blog to her!

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    1. I love your blog. It’s so easy to navigate. I just started a low carb diet, or I should say restarted as I kind of went crazy over the holidays. It’s challenging for me since I’m not a huge meat eater so I’m always on the prowl for good recipes. I noted several from your blog. Thanks and good luck to your daughter! Maybe we’ll see her books on the shelf one day. It’s good she’s getting an early start. It’s a craft and the more she does it the better she will be.

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  2. Very interesting and insightful. The only thing I would add, and something I’ve noticed a lot of new writers forget is the sense of smell. Give a character an odour, a signature ‘pong’ if you will!

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