Back when I wrote my first book, I was disconcerted when my critique partner simply could not like my main character (MC). Actually, I had two main characters—a young man and a young woman—but my partner loved the guy and hated the girl.
Good grief! These two characters were supposed to fall in love. What if I couldn’t get my very first reader to like my female MC?
The young woman in my story came off as brusque, tough, and unfeeling. I knew she was a wonderful person, but my partner just didn’t see it. What to do? What to do?
So I gave my character a little sister. Yes. A beloved, adorable little sister that she could hug and squeeze and spoil. And it worked! To the outside world, my MC had to show unwavering strength, but in private, I demonstrated that she was capable of warmth and humor.
Some authors think of their characters first, and some writers give priority to their plot. You cannot have one without the other and have a successful novel. This week, we will discuss characterization: what it is and how to do it.
The very first thing you need to accept is that your main character MUST be likable.
But what if I’m writing an antihero? What if my character starts out as a bad boy, and the story is about how the leopard changes his spots?
Then your main character had better be relatable. He or she needs to have a soft spot or a weakness your readers can identify with. Otherwise, you are writing a dud.
On the same note, you need to make your antagonist relatable too. Keep the bad guys “human,” even if they are from Mars. Your readers need to understand that the antagonist has needs and desires too.
First, you need to figure out who your characters are. There are all sorts of character interviews available online. Choose one you like and go to town.
Next, you need to communicate those characters to your reader in a deep and meaningful way. That’s characterization. Let’s get down to business.
In real life, you get to know someone by how they act and how they react. Is the person thoughtful of others or do they think of themselves first? How does the person you are observing react to adversity and disappointment? Does she complain all the time? Is he easy-going or hard to please?
In your story, how your character acts towards others and how they react to circumstances says everything about their character. Actions and reactions are obvious, external clues the readers can “see” and understand.
You’ve heard the saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” But what a character says and how they say it speak volumes. How does she speak to people she views as inferior? What does he say to his wife when he thinks no one is listening? What words do they use or misuse?
Does someone speak haltingly? Rarely? Sagely? Not that you’re going to use adverbs all the time, but if someone hesitates to speak up, then you know something about their character, just as you recognize the person who speaks their mind no matter how unpleasant their thoughts.
Be careful about using dialect. If you are writing all your conversations phonetically, your reader is liable to skip entire pages of your book. Hint at dialect without creating a new language. Pick and choose your made-up words for your alien world, and don’t overdo it.
Occasionally, an author needs to describe the same scene from different points of view (POVs). If you have multiple POVs, be sure each character sees and notices the details only that character would be likely to notice.
The fashionista will be sure to notice the out-of-date designer dress of the wannabe socialite. The fashionista’s womanizing boyfriend will notice how the dress hugs the pretty girl’s curves.
If you stick with one POV throughout your story, then stay consistent to build the character’s voice.
Closely allied to details the character notices is word choice. An uneducated immigrant worker is not going to have the same “voice” as her employer, the hoity-toity Boston professor. The worker’s vocabulary will not be as varied as her employer’s, although it can be every bit as colorful and every bit as meaningful.
When the scene is in the worker’s POV, the voice will be different. I’m not implying it will be less important or less evocative, but it must be different than when the scene is in the employer’s POV.
Word choice can reveal things about a character’s world view. Whether they respect others. How they feel about issues. Which side of the political aisle they agree with. It should be true to their cultural roots. Or it can reveal their disregard for their cultural heritage.
We love to sing along with Ursala, the sea witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Especially when she gets to the part about “body language.” She encourages Arial to give up her voice, saying that she can always get her message across with the most basic human communication method.
Professor Snape, the Potions teacher in Harry Potter, is a contained and sinister person. His body language is consistent with his role as a double agent. Sorry for the spoilers! At all times, he is in control of his facial expressions, the aura he communicates, and his voice. The only person who consistently gets under his skin is Harry, but even then, he usually manages to stay in control of his reactions and to maintain his facade.
The ever-tapping finger. The prim way of sitting. The sprawling posture in the presence of authority. The way a character shakes his hair back. Or pops gum. Or jiggles her knee beneath the desk. These are clues to character.
Does your MC go still or fidget when faced with the unknown? What does that say about your character?
When we are in a character’s POV, we are privy to their thoughts. This is one of the best ways to convey character without telling.
This is easiest in first person, as in this letter:
“My cell is 6X6X6, all sienna and amber light, kind of like the desert outside. How did I come to this—a mat, a stainless steel toilet, and the tiniest sink in the universe?
“The silver lining is that Captain Ali let me keep my backpack. Thank God I had it with me! So I have this spiral, some pens, a change of clothes, and a few emergency toiletries. My captors took my currency card, passport, press ID, and camera, but they didn’t notice the paper, pocket Bible you gave me before I left Virginia. Remember how we joked about the camo cover? Must’ve worked.” —Kathrese McKee, “The Confession”
Thoughts reveal character in third person just as well:
“She couldn’t alter heredity. She’d been born an Angelo, not a commoner. A year from now, she would be dead, even if she betrayed her destiny. Why not die heroically instead? That should take her straight into bliss—and history.” —Kathy Tyers, Firebird
Don’t we all compare ourselves to others?
She was everything I was not—tall, beautiful, witty, and confident.
Now, we know how the character sees herself, and we know about the baggage she is carrying around. Perhaps what she thinks of herself is true, or perhaps it isn’t.
I placed physical description in last place because all the others are more revealing ways to characterize. We all know that people are not what they seem. We form opinions of people in seconds based on how they look, but upon closer acquaintance, we usually revise our first impressions.
The superficial aspects of a character are not how we enthrall the reader. Who cares about whether the character is blonde? As readers, we are more interested in what makes her tick and why we should care.
As your story progresses, the way your character acts and reacts, the way he talks, the details she notices, the word choice, body language, thoughts, comparisons, and physical appearance can change to demonstrate your character’s arc.
This subtle shading from beginning to end creates unforgettable characters who will make your story stand out.