20. About Writing: Characterization

There’s a common idea that a good story is the description of a series of events. I disagree. I believe a good story is the depiction of the effect of a series of events upon the characters involved. We connect emotionally with characters, not plotlines.

The quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be nearly so thrilling if we weren’t rooting for Sam and Frodo. We wouldn’t care much about the strange events in A Christmas Carol if they didn’t work together to redeem old Scrooge. The Twilight novels would be even worse if some readers didn’t become emotionally invested in Bella and that sparkly excuse for a vampire.

What makes characters interesting, unique and memorable? What makes some characters likable and others detestable? How can a single author create dozens of characters that aren’t all the same?

Here are a few thoughts on good characterization.

Different characters should have different ways of speaking

Every major character should speak differently. A self-important character might speak in long, windy sentences packed with large words. A reserved character might use short, simple sentences. Officious, dignified characters tend to use fewer contractions than casual, easygoing characters.

Some characters have an accent that can be rendered phonetically through spelling. Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, exclaims “Dunno, Missis—I spects cause I’s so wicked!” instead of the more prosaic “I don’t know, Miss—I suspect because I’m so wicked!” Some characters tend to use a particular phrase or set of words. For example, the eponymous protagonist of The Great Gatsby addresses almost every man he meets as old sport.

Although every character’s speech should be unique, be careful not to overdo it. Too many dialogue gimmicks are distracting to the reader. A character’s way of speaking must be natural as well as unique.

Excessive physical description should be avoided

Too much physical description is often a sign of poor writing. The reader doesn’t need to know every detail of a character’s appearance. It’s almost always best to give an impression of a character, noting the most striking features, instead of a meticulous description. Honestly, how often do we notice or remember a person’s appearance upon meeting her for the first time? We might notice her ironic smile or twitchy hands, but probably not her exact height and eye color.

In my experience, it’s best to give just few memorable details about a character’s appearance—giving the reader a general picture of the character—and move on with the story.

Different characters should have different mannerisms

Sherlock Holmes has a lot of memorable habits that define his character. He plays the violin. He smokes a pipe. He occasionally doses himself with cocaine or morphine. He has odd housekeeping habits, such as conducting chemical experiments and decorating walls with bullet holes.

His peculiar mannerisms all point to a particular kind of character: a gifted man with few opportunities to use his gifts. Since he considers most investigations beneath his ability, he compensates by using his gifts for miscellaneous pursuits (such as violin and chemistry) and distracting himself with drugs. His mannerisms aren’t random; they indicate a very specific type of character.

Mannerisms—whether an obsession with coffee, a fear of spiders or a habit of eating dessert first—make characters memorable and reveal a lot about them.

Characters should change

Well, most characters should change. Every now and then there will be someone like Aslan or Tom Sawyer whose character is built upon unchanging constancy. However, like real people, most characters are influenced by the events around them. If someone survives a gunfight or breaks up with a fiancée, I guarantee he will be changed by the incident. Fictional characters are no different.

Real people change and grow; so should fictional characters.

Clothes should reveal something about a character

There’s a reason Hamlet wears black. Jay Gatsby wouldn’t be quite the same without his elegant shirts. And can anyone imagine Gandalf without a tall, pointed hat?

Clothes don’t have to reveal something about a character—some characters, like real people, wear whatever clothes are handy—but something can often be learned about a character by the way she chooses to dress.

What have I missed? What’s your advice for good characterization? Let us know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “20. About Writing: Characterization

  1. These are all excellent points, but I also think the way characters interact with one another is important. The way we interact with people on the daily basis says a lot about us, and the same goes for fictional characters. I enjoy reading (and writing) dialogues, or even inner monologues, and following the progression of actions between characters; noticing whom they get along with and whom they don’t gives insight into any character’s true self. But that’s just my two cents.

    • You’re absolutely right: Interactions between characters, whether dialogues or actions, are a great way to develop those characters. I totally forgot to mention it, so I’m glad you brought it up. Your two cents are much appreciated!

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