Characterization in three simple steps.

As I’ve stated before in a few articles (this one, most specifically), my stories usually stem from my characters. Obviously, this means my characterization needs to be pretty solid. There are three particular things I look at when I’m writing to ensure my characters come off well-rounded and natural.

The first step to creating well-rounded characters is to actually build character profiles. These can be pretty simple for minor characters, and more intense for more prominent people in your story. Since I’ve already basically covered this step here, and since we all know that well-rounded characters need to grow and adapt through a story, I don’t need to really go more into detail with that, do I?

Oh, wait–the growing and adapting thing? That’s one of the many reasons you need an outline. Please refer to this article for more information on that.

Anyway, as I stated above, there are three things I look at while I’m writing to ensure my characters come off the way I want them to. By taking these things into consideration, not only do I make sure my characters keep true to themselves, but I make sure my reader can believe in the character I’ve set up for them.

Actions speak louder than words.
We hear a lot about “show, don’t tell” in writing. One of the reasons this is so important is because it lets our readers experience first-hand who our characters are. Instead of saying Joe-Bob is a great guy, despite his missing teeth, write a scene in which Joe-Bob gives up his ice cream to an orphaned child, and afterward grins at her with his misshapen smile. In writing, the more information you can let your reader pick up on with your characters, the more they will grow to love them on their own. Your readers aren’t as stupid as you may think they are. If you do a good job with your character’s actions, they should love them for who you’ve written them to be.

Also in this train of thought–also keep track of all the actions your character makes to ensure they fit with who your character is. If you have a character who is described as being surly and untrusting, please don’t have them fall in love with the first cute, half-human who happens to stumble by. I won’t believe in this character, no matter how steamy that sex scene ends up being.

But words are still pretty important.
Dialogue is a powerful writing tool, especially in getting to know a character. Different characters speak in different ways, and even if those ways are subtle, they’re insanely helpful to getting an idea who your character is. A character who speaks in short, curt sentences is quite a different character than the one who can’t shut up, and both of them are way different than the character who hardly speaks at all. Also keep in mind the topics your character talks about. If you have a character who would be uncomfortable talking about clubbing baby seals, don’t bring it up–and if you DO, make sure that character ACTS uncomfortable (see point number one).

The biggest mistake I see with character dialogue is characters who all sound the same. Many writers have an idea about what dialogue “is,” when, as with everything else in writing, this is highly subjective and totally depends on both the author and the characters involved.

And let’s not forget, the perspective.
As I mentioned in a previous article, writing perspective is a huge part of characterization. Okay, maybe it’s not for everyone, but it certainly is with me. Even though I primarily write in the third-person point-of-view, I still have one character who “runs the scene,” so to speak. This is the one character’s head we get to see into, and the one character whose thoughts, emotions, and motivators move the scene forward. I don’t do this “omniscient” bullshit. I think it’s boring.

Because I write scenes from the third-person perspective of specific characters, I can use my actual writing, not just the actions and not just the dialogue, but the way I sew those elements together, to create more than just tone: I create unique languages for different characters that further help define who those characters are.

Here are some examples from Martyrs. These two sections are from different character perspectives:

Scene one:

“She smiled at them. It was the same sad smile everyone in this godforsaken organization had. As she walked away, Darius looked around at the sea of bodies, and he was quieted. Did he want to become involved? Did he want to come face to face with this much tragedy? Or did he want to go out and search, desperately search, for friends who may or may not have survived the greatest tragedy of Darius’s life?

“I need to walk,” Noel murmured, and she took off, her direction as arbitrary as the one Darius chose after her. He needed space. He needed time. He needed to get away from his own mind, as jumbled and confused as it was, and get some clarity.”

Scene two:

“The fact that the Martyrs had managed to keep the Underground a secret for so long was a downright miracle. She suspected the Sins weren’t really looking that hard. They’d gone on for this long without a real threat, picking off her people one-by-one, why would they care about the Martyrs’ location? It was only a matter of time before they had no one left to fight against.

Hell, the Sins treated this whole goddamned conflict like a game. The only side that had anything to lose right now was the Martyrs themselves, and those little demons knew it.”

See the difference? The writing itself helps identify who a character is. However subtly this is done, by creating a specific “voice” per character, you develop an even deeper way to create complex characterization.


Categories: Tips and Tricks, Writing

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