Characterization: Or, How to Create Characters that Your Reader Actually Enjoys
by Vaughan Williams ©2009
by Vaughan Williams ©2009
I thought I'd write this article from the viewpoint of the author about one of the most crucial aspects of storytelling: characterization. It's the process of creating characters for one's story, and it can be very difficult, simply because coming up with unique, yet realistic, people for a piece of fiction is something that most authors either do with too much or not enough elaboration.
Give too much detail, and it begins to feel like a psychological evaluation (and distracts the reader from the actual plot); too little, and the character is more of a cardboard cut-out than a person to whom the reader can relate. Finding the balance is the trick, and it requires the author to constantly keep in mind how to include the various quirks and traits of an individual during the course of the story.
For example, your character smokes. Overdoing it would be to write a full-page description of how the character (let's call him Bob) came to be a smoker; in his teens, dared by pressuring peers, Bob succumbed and became addicted, though he now regrets the habit and wishes he could quit. Even if you feel this step back in time delineates how vulnerable Bob was as a teen, how he longed for acceptance and affection, and now how he wants to improve himself and shrug off the yoke of an addiction, it's a case of telling rather than showing, which most people will agree is poor storytelling.
Underdoing it would be to mention, in scant passing, how as Bob had a discussion with someone, he took out a cigarette, lit it, and inhaled (or didn't inhale, if you're a Clinton). And? You can say so much about Bob's personality, his history, even his aspirations, from how he does it. From where does he take the cigarette: the breast pocket of an Armani suit, the back pocket of threadbare jeans, a beaded clutch purse? Is the pack crumpled or freshly opened, or are the cigs contained in a 24-carat gold case? Does Bob dig for the cigarettes frantically, on the verge of a nicotine fit, or so languidly that the reader knows it's being done for effect rather than any actual urge to smoke?
Once you give a trait to a character, don't just do it once, to hint toward his personality and hidden depths, and then never mention it again. Consistency is the key to creating a story that doesn't feel flimsy and slapped-together, because ultimately it will leave the reader dissatisfied and disappointed, as if they'd eaten a meringue when they'd expected cheesecake.
It's tempting, especially for first-time authors, to write a protagonist who is more of an avatar of themselves than to create someone with whom they do not personally identify. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially when someone lacks the experience or “comfort zone” to work outside their frame of reference. We're always being told to “write what we know”, after all. The trick to it is keeping the character realistic, to not idealize her to the point of making the reader nauseous.
Your character (let's call her Belle) is a professional singer, because you've always wanted to be a singer. That's fine, but how do you describe her? Does Belle have a problem keeping her vibrato even, or a tendency to go flat on the high A's, and perhaps there's a coach or instructor who critiques her after her performances? Maybe Belle's getting up in years, and after a decade or two of partying, all the smoking and drinking is taking its toll on her voice? Or do you say she has the “voice of an angel” and that every member of the audience is “spellbound” by her miraculous talent, and they all “applaud with reverence” once she's done?
In the first example, she's got to cope with criticism from an authority figure, and in the second, Belle must deal with the repercussions of her own mistakes, and learn to carry on in spite of a challenge. Even if we're not sharing in the specifics of being a singer with problems, we can relate to those general issues, and find a connection with the character.
But the third example poses a problem: being too reverential to one's character, making her too perfect, can lead the reader to a sense of distaste and even outright loathing, and that's the exact opposite of what a good story does. A good story wants to engage the reader, and have the reader connect and empathize with the protagonist, not wish she'd die in a fire.
“Ha!” you say, exultant, “but I have given my delightful character flaws! She sings so well that she's got all these enemies and they want to do her dirt! And she's too beautiful! All the men are after her, they kidnap her and force jewelery on her to get her to love them and--”
Or, “Ha!” you exclaim, triumphant, “my character is flawed, damn you! She sang so well it broke the king's heart and he banished her, and she's shunned because, though stunning, she's the only brunette when the fashion is to be blonde, and her eyes are two different colors (one the turquoise-green of the Caribbean, the other the cerulean blue of the Aegean), and she has a limp from falling from a horse while heroically rescuing an orphanage full of despondent cherubs at the age of nine!”
Such a paragon might be the epitome of wish-fulfillment, but she certainly won't be winning any awards for connecting with the readership. The name of the game is balance, and to do that, you must look at your work with a critical eye. How does one obtain this critical eye?
That, my friend, is the topic for another day.
P.S. How do you decide which traits to include? My favourite way to flesh out a character is to employ astrology. There are many websites that allow you to input certain facts (like date and place of birth) and receive a full personality profile (http://www.chaosastrology.net creates extremely detailed and accurate charts, for example). Simply decide when and where your characters were born, pop the info into the generator, and you've got a full characterization plan that tells you precisely how your characters will act during almost any given situation.
Or you can go the more traditional route of using actual books: Love Signs and Sun Signs by Linda Goodman were written decades ago, but are still absolutely wonderful sources of information for creating layered, textured, realistic-feeling characters. Love Signs in particular is valuable because it tells how two different people will interact, depending on their horoscopes. Want harmony between two characters? Choose signs that trine. Looking for conflict? Go for signs that are opposed or squared. It can give an element so realistic that you'll be amazed.