Building Your Perfect Character
“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.