"Seven Strategies For Characterization" by Stephen Leigh
Seven Strategies for Characterization
In my creative writing classes, I generally break fiction into four basic components: Character, Setting, Plot, and Theme. I spend more time on characterization than the others, honestly, since I think that no matter what genre you’re writing, the reader cares primarily about the characters. You can be a tremendous worldbuilder and create an incredibly intricate background for the novel; you can have a blazing plot with startling shifts and turns and unexpected directions (all properly foreshadowed, of course); you can lay a deep, meaningful foundational theme underneath everything to support the entire structure. That’s all fine, but if the characters are wooden and one-dimensional, it’s also all for naught. Yet if the characters are complex, real, and compelling, then the reader will forgive small defects in setting, plot, and theme… because it’s the characters we care about.
It’s the characters we remember when we close a book. We identify and bond with the characters, we cry and laugh with them, we fear for them, we root for (or sometimes against) them as they make their way through the events of the book.
Characters can make or break us as writers.
So learning how to create great characters is a skill we must all continue to hone, no matter where we are in our careers. Here are seven strategies that I outline for my creative writing students. I make absolutely no claim that this is the only way to go about characterization. It is simply one way among many. If you like any of this, feel free to apply it in your own work.
Strategy 1: Physical Details
Personally, I find the physical description of a character to be perhaps the least important aspect of characterization. Yes, it’s good to give the reader some idea of what the character looks like, but a catalogue description of facial features, height, weight, hair color, skin color, and clothing doesn’t actually help in filling out the character for the reader. Here’s a description: “Scott had blue eyes and dirty blond hair, was six feet tall, and weighed about 185 pounds.” All that may be accurate, but it’s also rather general and bland, and it tells us nothing about Scott as a character.
Here’s an exercise for you. Think of a novel where you came away with a very clear picture of the character in your head. Now go back and read the actual descriptions of that character in the text. My bet is that you’ll find that your mental image contains several details that aren’t at all in the author’s actual text: instead, you’ve provided those details from your own imagination.
That’s fine, too. It’s why you’ll see the film of a novel you’ve read and either agree or disagree violently with the casting of the actors, because those actors do or don’t match the image in your head. The thing is, each and every reader will take away a different vision of the characters in your written work, and each and every reader’s interpretation is exactly correct -- for them.
Our job as writers is to provide the reader with a few specific “telling details” -- small, precise, and important details that provide not just a physical description, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a psychological description of the character.
Here’s an example, from the novel Shame by Salman Rushdie. “Mr. Eduardo Rodriques was as slim and sharp as his enormous collection of pencils…”
Isn’t that terrific? I can see Eduardo Rodrigues from that single sentence, as clearly as if he were standing here in front of me… and I have the added bonus of having some idea of his psychological construction -- what kind of person has an enormous collection of pencils? One sentence, with a bare but very pertinent detail that brings the character to sudden life.
That’s what we should all be striving to accomplish.
Strategy 2: Show & Tell
“Show, don’t Tell.” Everyone tends to hear that in writing classes. Here’s a bit of “Tell”:
Fred was out of shape and overweight.
Now a “show” of the same statement: Fred had to pause at the second landing, out of breath already. His calf muscles ached from the exertion of walking the two flights of stairs and he leaned against the knob of the railing, panting. The waist of his jeans, which had fit perfectly when he bought them six months ago, dug painfully under the balcony of his stomach. The button strained at the hole that confined it, the fly gaping to expose the zipper.
In both cases, we’re trying to give the reader some idea of Fred as a character. Here you see the obvious difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ -- showing takes significantly more space than telling. In showing, though, we have the opportunity to pull out wonderful facts about Fred and his personality that we might otherwise skip. There’s more emotion, more visceral description. We know Fred better as a person.
Yet while my preference decidedly leans toward the show version, the tell is more efficient. There are times when you want to tell, not show. That ‘show’ paragraph, in the midst of an action scene, would slow things down considerably and hurt the narrative flow. The ‘tell’ gives the reader the necessary information without any fuss.
I would tell you that when you have the opportunity to display a character’s personality by seeing that person “in movement” and doing something, take that opportunity rather than just giving the reader exposition that simply states the facts. But… just as you want to vary the rhythm of your prose, you also want to vary the rhythm of your characterization.
It shouldn’t be “Show, don’t Tell.” It should be “Show, but sometimes Tell.”
Strategy 3: Dialogue
I think, for me, that this may be the Big One -- the strategy with the most impact on characterization for both good or ill. If you fail at getting the dialogue right, the character will also fail, but if you get it right… well, then the character will stir and come to vivid life on the page.
With dialogue, we add an entirely new sense to the character, because as soon as you enclose words inside those quotation marks, the readers begins to not only see the character, but to hear her or him. We give the character a voice -- and each character should have her or his unique voice. Everyone who grew up before the time of your phone telling you who was on the other end of a call has had this experience: your landline rings, you pick up the phone and say “Hello?”, and the person on the other end just starts talking. Yet even though they haven’t given you their name, within a few seconds you know who’s on the line: because of the sound of their voice, the timbre of their speech, their use of vocabulary, the speed at which they talk.
We know them strictly by their voice. It should be that way with your character, ideally. To some extent, the reader should be able to tell who’s talking even if you leave off the speech tags… because every character should have their own voice.
The way we each talk stems from several different factors, among them: physical differences (the length of your vocal cords, the size of your chest cavity); gender (though one has to be careful about making assumptions, as there are women with low voices and men with high ones); education level (often affects vocabulary and structure); culture and/or age (affects slang usage and idioms); nationality and / or the first language spoken (in some circumstances, your character might have an accent); a person’s comfort in the situation, and who we’re talking to and why (let’s face it, most of us speak differently among friends than we do when we’re talking to our boss).
As a writer, you need to know your character well enough to know how they would talk in any given situation.
On the other hand, dialogue should sound real, but it shouldn’t be real. Record some genuine conversation, and you’ll hear lots of “umms” and pauses and shattered sentences which, if recorded accurately, would be terrifically difficult for a reader. Here’s an example I use in class (you’ll have to imagine me saying this aloud) -- me reacting to my then-young son breaking a window:
REAL: “WHAT the... I... (huff) You... you’d better get the... the broom and... and.... DAMN IT!.... clean up this... this... mess. You hear me, D… Devon? I... (big sigh) and this is y’know comin’ outa your... umm... umm... You... (shakes head, sputters wordlessly for a few seconds) Just... just... uh, you got me?”
That’s a close approximation of what I might have actually said. But in a piece of fiction, that’s not particularly readable. But cleaning up what I intended to say and making it perfect isn’t a good approximation of ‘my’ voice either.
PERFECT: “You will find a broom and you will sweep up the shards of broken glass. I trust that you comprehend what I am saying, sir. You should also be aware that the cost for replacing the pane will be deducted from your weekly stipend. Is that perfectly clear to you?”
This would be fine were I an English lord on Downton Abbey, but, alas, I’m not...
Here’s what could be in the book: “Damn it!” Steve shook his head and exhaled audibly, his exasperation apparent in the way his hands waved aimlessly. “You get the broom and clean up that mess, you hear me, Devon? And this comes out of your allowance. You got that?”
What you’re after in dialogue is “verisimilitude” -- something that sounds real, that gives the reader the quality of the character’s voice, but also doesn’t impede the reader.
4: The Revealing Action
Your plot will force your characters to respond in some manner. How they respond to the stimulus of the plot is characterization. They must respond as a person of their background, their abilities, and their personality would believably respond -- which is not necessarily (or even usually) the way you-the-writer would respond.
Let’s say you have Julia, who has just been told by her husband of five years that he’s leaving her for someone else. This statement has come out of nowhere for Julia, who had no suspicion that there was any issue in their marriage at all. What will she do? How will she respond? There are almost infinite possibilities here: she could slap him or hit him; she could cry; she could flee from the room; she could stalk off to the bedroom and start throwing his clothing out the window; she could shove him out the door; she could scream; she could try to convince him to stay; she could… she could...
There are too many possibilities to count. The thing is that each of those actions require a different version of Julia. For the Julia you have in your story, there’s one action that’s consistent with the character you’ve built, and you need to know your Julia well enough to pick out that one, and not one that is inconsistent with her.
I once had a student write a story where the main character (a young man) opened the refrigerator in his apartment to be confronted by moldy food. In the story, the young man is disgusted and appalled, so horrified and nauseated by the sight that he’s unable to even touch the stuff. But… a couple scenes later, his fiance has arrived, and she happens to lose her engagement ring in the kitchen garbage. So our intrepid young man immediately plunges his hand into garbage can to rescue the ring.
That action absolutely didn’t work: the person who can’t bear to handle moldy food containers in the fridge isn’t going to stick his hand into a garbage can filled with all sorts of icky things. It’s inconsistent behavior unless you’ve shown us scenes where that character has changed for some good reason (and in this case, the writer hadn’t),
The actions your character take reveal their character to the reader, and that character has to be consistent with the fictional person you’ve built, as well as with a character of that time, that place, that background, that social status, and so on.
I flat-out love research, as I find it inevitably sparks new ideas for a story or novel. If you’re writing in the ‘Here & Now,’ it’s not quite as necessary, but unless you do exactly what every last one of your characters do, and you have the same background, education, and interests as all of your characters, you’re still going to need to go out and seek information. In my classes, I give my students this scenario: Your character is a upper-class woman living in New York in 1855. Your story starts with her waking up in the morning. How happens next? What’s she wearing? And from there, I give them a (brief) outline of how such a woman from that era would generally be dressing -- which usually leaves them a little stunned.
As writers of speculative fiction, we often have a lot of research to do. In IMMORTAL MUSE, I bounce between contemporary NYC to late 1300 Paris, to Rome in the 1630s, to Venice in the 1700s, to Paris in the French Revolution, to early 19th Century London, to Vienna in the 1890s, to France during WWII… That’s a little extreme, but a writer’s job is to produce characters (and a setting) within our timeframe that is convincing to the reader.
There are several ways you can go about researching. You can (obviously) consult nonfiction books; you can talk to an expert in the field (often a great way to go about it, and most experts are more than willing to share their knowledge); you can talk to a person who actually does the job your character does (and again, most people are flattered that you want to use them to help write a book); you can, sometimes, actually experience what your character has experienced -- which is often the best way.
But the bottom line is that you must know what your characters know. You must understand the routines they follow and the “lingo” of their profession (they work at Starbucks? They have to know the language of coffee). You have to understand their worldview. Sometimes, in our genre, you can use a similar situation: for instance, a “wizard” might be akin to a scientist, or a chemist if they mix potions, or an herbalist if they use ‘natural’ solutions. But you have to have all this down solid, or your characters will become caricatures, and that’s not good.
As writers, we also have to become actors. We have to constantly ask ourselves this question: “If I were this person, in this situation, with this personality and with this background, what would I do?” And that’s all about empathy -- we have to be able to sink into our characters’ heads, as dangerous as that can be.
For a writer, “bad acting” results in cardboard characters, in boring lecturers of characters, in “Darwin-in-Action” characters who do stupid things that no halfway intelligent person would do.
We implicitly ask this of our readers: “Don’t mistake the beliefs and feelings of my characters for the beliefs and feelings of me-the-author, because my characters will say or do things that I personally find abhorrent or wrong. My characters are not me.”
In the same way, as a writer, we shouldn’t mistake our own beliefs and feelings for the beliefs and feelings of our characters. They will say and do things you wouldn’t. And that’s a good thing.
7: Listen to Others
It’s not good for you (or your characters) to write in a vacuum. We have to remember that the writer isn’t the final judge of his or her writing -- the reader is. So it behooves us to enlist readers to give us feedback. That could be via a workshop environment if you’re lucky enough to have found a good one where you get honest, critical responses to your work -- while it feels good to have people pat you on the back and tell you how wonderful your draft is, that really doesn’t help you become a better writer. You want critique, not praise. Yes, you do want to know where things are working, but it’s more important to know where things aren’t.
In a workshop environment, I try to listen to repetition of the same criticism. If most of the group members are telling you the same thing, it behooves you to think that they’re right, and this is a problem you need to address. If one person says something, but the others don’t chime in to agree, well, you can make your own decision as to whether this is something you need to worry about or not.
If you don’t have a workshop group (and I don’t), what a writer can do is enlist a group of beta readers to give you feedback -- which is my current process. You want to find readers whose taste in fiction is similar to yours, who are excellent, sophisticated readers who can tell you where you need to concentrate your revision efforts. I’d be cautious about using friends; sometimes friends are understandably reluctant to hurt your feelings, and will either only talk about the parts they liked, or will simply lie and tell you it’s the best book they ever read and my, what a talented person you are.
That’s a useless response to a draft. You want readers (who can be friends if they’re not afraid of hurting your feelings) who will be bluntly honest about their response to your draft. Listen to them. Use their feedback and revise accordingly.
In the end, though, whether you use a workshop or beta readers, you’re still the writer. In the final polished draft, the decisions are always yours to make.
In reality, you might use all of these strategies to strengthen your characterization, or even devise new ones of your own. With a novel, especially, it’s difficult to point out “Here’s an example of good characterization” because the author is always doing characterization. As in a Renaissance painting, you carefully create a character layer by layer by layer every time that character appears.
The best advice I can give you is this: Find a book where the characters resonate for you, where they feel alive and real. Tear that book apart. Read it slowly. Figure out, page by page (because it will be a layering of things) how the author brought those characters to life.
Then lather, rinse, and repeat… and apply what you’ve learned to your own work!