“I don’t convey things through the characters, they convey things through me. I’m merely a conduit, but they’re in charge.” - Jeffrey Ford, Wonderbook
Characters and Characterization
What’s the last good book you read? Got an idea of it in your head? Okay, now what made you choose that book? Think about it. Got that reason? I’m guessing you said something along the lines of ‘I like the characters.’
Characters are important for various reasons. Firstly, they propel a narrative forward by establishing or ending a story’s plotlines. Through characters, readers experience the wonderment of incanting a spell, the anxiety of crossing a crowded bazaar, or any other event the author’s crafted. And if it were not for characters, how else would a story’s thematic elements be properly illustrated?
Because characters are crucial story-telling components, we, as writers, must pay careful attention to characterization.
Characterization is the features or attributes that make a character. This can apply to superficial details, such as physical appearance or clothing. However, characterization is not limited solely to these aspects. When writing, you may notice characterization bleeding into other story elements like plot, situation, structure, and setting--a character sequestered in a woodland cabin is very different from one cooped inside a studio apartment.
Who is Your Character?
A story’s events are nothing, if not meaningless if the characters inhabiting those events aren’t memorable or well-characterized.
Our duties as fiction writers are to create characters intriguing enough to suspend the reader’s belief. But how do we go about doing this? Consider the following categories as a good starting point if you’re unfamiliar with how to approach a character’s creation.
Describing a character is the most poignant use of characterization. Details relating to facial features, hairstyle, or clothing don’t go unnoticed by readers. These specifics may help them know when your character’s story takes place, their role in society, or their economic status.
By providing aesthetic information, you’ve already influenced your readers to perceive the character in a certain way. A character sporting a mohawk, studded leather jacket, and ripped jeans is a distinct counter to another with a crew-cut and wearing a well-tailored suit.
To gain a better understanding of the concept, take a look at one of my favorite examples of description used for the character, Harry Potter, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright-green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead which was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had got it.
I like this description for various reasons. Rowling’s language is poignant and direct. To put it simply, Harry is a shrimp. He’s freakishly skinny and always getting bullied. The detail regarding his taped glasses and Dudley suggests that his adoptive family doesn’t care for him. Harry’s bright-green eyes and lightning scar allude to his “chosen one” status. Within a few sentences, Rowling provides effective physical descriptions that offer readers an idea of Harry’s type of character and the treatment he’s accustomed to receiving based on his appearance.
But be wary! Lengthy descriptions have fallen out of style. Some readers may view a writer’s overreliance on physical appearance as a primary method of characterization as dull or obstructive to the reading experience. Knowing when and what to include concerning a character’s physical appearance is a skill only learned through constant writing practice.
What are your character’s social or political ideals? Are they an altruist or Ebeneezer Scrooge? Combative and prone to violence or apologetic and meek? While these details don’t necessarily need to be stated, they’re traits to keep in mind when pondering how you may want a character to react in a situation or conduct themselves during dialogue.
Continuing with my use of Harry Potter examples (because he’s just that good), when Harry becomes a newly appointed student of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he undergoes the Sorting Hat Ceremony. During the ceremony, a sentient magical hat is placed on a new student’s head and determines which of Hogwarts’ four houses the student will go to: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin. Harry is sent to Gryffindor, which corresponds to values of courage, bravery, nerve, and chivalry. These beliefs are the cornerstones of Harry’s personality and offer readers a hint about how he conducts himself throughout the series.
By giving your character aspirations, you’ve discovered a way for them to exist beyond the confines of your story. This feature is a more subtextual approach to characterization when compared to physical descriptions, but it’s still an effective way to create a believable character. Is your character ambitious or just trying to get through life one day at a time? Do they have goals for the future or delusions of grandeur?
I think what makes Harry Potter work so well regarding this category is the many roles he has to fulfill. Because of these varying roles, Harry must apply hope in varying contexts. As the “chosen one,” he hopes to defeat Voldemort. As a Hogwarts student, he hopes to be a great wizard. And there’s that penultimate hope to keep his friends and newly established family from harm’s way. These factors come together in a way that forces readers to identify with the trials Harry faces. Despite the supernatural context of his situations, Harry’s fear of failure and losing everything close to him is an aspect many can identify with.
A character’s abilities offer several storytelling opportunities. You may find that providing your character with skills, whether it be an astuteness for astrophysics or talent for athletics, can directly affect your story’s plot, how that character interacts with others or responds to an event. How does your character train this ability? How do they view having this ability--are they proud or indifferent? Does their ability conflict with their hopes or beliefs?
Harry Potter’s driving ability is his skillful use of magic. The novels make excellent use of Harry’s abilities by putting him in situations where magic is used for comedic effect, dramatic purposes, or just for the heck of it. Because Rowling’s book series is inherently supernatural, she’s able to get away with using the character’s abilities to push her narrative forward.
Common Mistakes with Characterization
Ignoring a Character’s Experiences
It’s common for writers to unknowingly create a disconnect between the event taking place and the character’s perspective. Rather than butcher an explanation of what I mean, here’s a quote by author Jeff Vandermeer:
“Within a third-person point of view, you have an obligation not to lard the narrative and the characters with excessive description or description not truly related to the viewpoint character.”
A viewpoint character’s ability to notice (or ignore) details relating to an event is influenced by that character’s experiences. As such, those experiences should determine how the viewpoint character reacts to the event they’re undergoing—wanting your character to act in a way not appropriate with their experiences compromises your story’s believability.
Having an Overwhelming Backstory
Providing backstory can offer some interesting creative opportunity, but it’s an all-too-easy trap at feeling compelled to dump potent character details all at once. Readers may find this approach bloated or overwhelming.
Luckily, resolving this is relatively easy! If you find sections within your story that are too backstory-heavy, consider reviewing the overall story to determine where and when details can best fit or provide the most impact.
While some stories require a lot of information in the beginning, consider withholding information for the sake of narrative possibility. Varying how backstory is conveyed is another way to resolve the reader from feeling overwhelmed. Add some sentences here and there, maybe clue readers in during dialogue, or possibly provide a flashback.
Killing a Character Too Quickly
Character deaths hold significant emotional and narrative importance. Because of this, the build-up to a character’s end and aftermath of their passing should be done effectively. Once a character dies, the plot and other characters involved should be affected in some way. Whether this translates to a new conflict or falling out between friends is up to you, but always remember that a character’s death should ripple through your story.
Ignoring Secondary Characters
View your secondary characters as you view your central character. Applying detail to a secondary character’s own goals, emotions, and relationships makes your story more believable and offers some interesting opportunities for drama and plot. Treating secondary characters this way allows you to better understand the world you’re crafting and the mechanisms operating within it.
Developing a character can be an intimate and nerve-wracking experience. It’s a dedicated effort requiring a lot of careful attention to detail. Don’t be too hard on yourself if the process doesn’t come easily. Like all aspects of fiction, characterization is a process of discovery and using the most of your creative freedom. Just keep writing, and who knows, you might have the next Harry Potter on your hands.
About the Author:
Aaron Talledo is currently pursuing his BA in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He finds inspiration from literature, music, and film and expresses creativity through writing. In his free time, Aaron enjoys fitness, meditation, and video games.