Characterization

Characters need to be:

credible
motivated
described

Ways of creating characters:

Focus on details: Describe them. Show them in their natural habitat, interacting with people. What do they look like? What do they wear? What do they do? How do they talk? What do they read, eat, play, drive? The more you describe them (not in the opening, but throughout the novel), the less likely you’ll be to create a cardboard character, a stereotype.

Focus on traits: Look at the section on psychological traits below and determine which ones your character needs to move through the plot. If he’s going to be kidnapped, does he need the trait of patience? The trait of McGyver-like ingenuity?

Focus on description: When you describe your character’s physical appearance is there a connection to his character? Does he walk in a way that indicates he’s a fighter, he’s stubborn, he’s despairing of life, he’s optimistic? What about how he dresses? Does it indicate anything about how he sees himself, how he sees the world?

Focus on setting: What can you say about a person by looking at their home? What can you gather by looking at the inside of their car? What about his desk at work? Is the mail piled up? Can he keep up with his laundry? This is the kind of detail that gives information without outright stating it. We know our character is overwhelmed by looking at his laundry. What if our character moves to four different apartments in one year? What does that tell us?

Focus on Background: What if the character’s family background? His educational background? How many jobs has he had? What about relationships? Has he been married? Divorced? What can you say about the character’s thinking when you look at the background?

Characterization through symbol: Sometimes a writer will use a symbol to show character. In the movie, Citizen Kane, the last word the protagonist ever speaks is “Rosebud.” What is Rosebud? It’s the name of the sled he was riding on as a child, the day his mother sent him away, and his whole life has been one giant effort to obliterate that one experience. What is Rosebud? It’s a symbol.

Characterization through self-revelation: Sometimes a character just wants to tell you. If the writer is good, it won’t be direct (as in tell, not show), but it will be done in a more clever way. He’ll talk to another character about himself, or make a diary entry, or relate his dreams. He will tell the reader his psychological state. In Wallander, for example, he looks depressed, and he acts depressed, and other people make comments on his depressed appearance. He’s killed a man and his father is dying. Wallander reveals his inner state in scene after scene.

Characterization through action: As in life, we see a person’s character by what they do. You’re reading a murder mystery and the murderer murders someone. It’s a safe bet that they’re cold-hearted. Action speaks. The woman who cannot have children operates a day care and babysits the neighbourhood kids is dealing with her loss by caring for the children of others. This is the most straight forward way of showing characterization.

Characterization through speech: Does the character talk fast? Stutter? Use big words he/she doesn’t really understand? Swear a lot? Use slang? Speak five languages fluently? Speak in a slow drawl? Speech is just one of the ways a writer can reveal what a character is like.

Characterization through clothing: This one is so obvious it’s almost not worth mentioning. How a person dresses says a lot about them. Is their clothing conservative? Provocative? Out of date? Expensive? Tattered? Unique? Like a uniform? How we dress is how we present ourselves to the world. What is your character saying?

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