A Brief Overview of Characterization

Number of characters: Not too many, or you may confuse your reader. Only as many as absolutely necessary.

Determining who's necessary: Each character should somehow advance the conflict.

Too many characters: Try to consolidate minor characters.

Contrived characters: Combining characters can sometimes seem contrived, but this isn't real life. It's a story, and your job is to contrive skillfully.

Real people: If they're alive (and sometimes even if they're dead), using a real person can open the novelist up to frivolous lawsuits for slander. Plus real people don't often fit your story needs exactly, because real people are more complex than your story people need to be.

Shape your character's character: Use STRESS. Conflict reveals a character's true nature.

Character growth: Show how characters change in response to situations. The events in your story will teach them lessons.

Minor characters: Develop them as much as you need to for them to seem real. Cardboard minor characters don't reflect well on main protagonists.

Character charts and lists: Some people use them, some don't. There are a variety available on the web. Here are a few:



Differentiate between your characters:

a) Give them a dominant "first impression." The rule about first impression applies to characters, too. Giving each character a different dominant trait will help the characters contrast with each other.

b) You can cast characters to type or against type. A stereotyped character has a familiarity that will help your reader understand the character faster. If you contradict stereotype, you lose familiarity but gain interest and originality. However, be wary of a contradicted stereotype that's too unbelievable for your reader to buy into.

c) Give them both strengths and weaknesses.

d) Differentiate using labels: appearance, speech, mannerisms, attitudes. They will help to visually distinguish each character for your readers, while adding to characterization. Don't use too many tags--especially for minor characters--and don't use them too often. Repetition can become tedious when you mention the heroine's "copper-gold tresses" for the tenth time in the novel. Also, use their tags in action rather than simply in static description. Her blue eyes froze to icebergs rather than She had ice-blue eyes.

Character background is usually a combination of lack or inadequacy and compensation for those inadequacies.

Inadequacy: How is your character lacking in physical appearance? Childhood environment? Work or life experiences? Philosophy or ideas? Love? Social sphere?

Compensation: How does your character compensate or react to his inadequacies? Fight or flight?

a) Determine the character's self-image, whether true or false.

b) Keep the character consistent in their reactions to things.

c) Make their behavior tell the story, not exposition (which is boring).

d) Mannerisms and traits should reflect the character's unique inner values.

e) Make each character contrast sharply.

f) Focus your characterization efforts on the main characters. Don't waste time and energy on minor players.

g) Understand people yourself as a writer. You can't write about people if you never observe them or learn about human behavior.

Make your reader identify with your character.

a) Make the character do something the reader would like to do, but can't/won't. Someone the reader would like to be like, someone to envy.

b) Give your characters the strength and motivation to control their reality. They challenge fate, they act in courage. They attempt the impossible, the unattainable, the forbidden, the disastrous.

c) Keep in mind your target audience and write toward their needs. Make it age-specific, demographic-specific.

d) Give both your protagonist(s) and your antagonist(s) concrete goals. Goals give your character direction and action.

e) Give your protagonist(s) strong motivations, both inside and out. Internal conflicts and external obstacles.

f) Make your villain strong and effective. In general, the antagonist is ruthless in only a single area or situation, rather than being a completely Bad Person, and he has a strong motivation for what he does.

g) Give your characters a wide range of situations and have them react, to show the reader what type of person they are.

Swain give some good guidelines for characterization, but I discovered that for me, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets A Novelist Can Learn From Actors by Brandilyn Collins has been the best and most unique way to craft three-dimensional characters.

Next: The Nuts and Bolts of Actually Writing

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

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