The characters are probably the most important element of any fiction piece, whether it's micro-fiction like the Writing Challenge or a series of full-length novels. If you fail to create interesting characters who your readers care about, then there is very little reason for them to keep reading. The process of creating these characters is called characterization
Before I go more into the process of characterization, I want to discuss two kinds of characters: flat characters and rounded characters.Flat characters
are like paper dolls—they are two-dimensional and can be described using only one or two adjectives. Often they are stereotypes: the Best Friend, the Overbearing Mother-in law, the Evil Landlord. They may be in the story to serve a specific purpose in advancing the plot, but they do not change or grow as a result of the events of the story.Rounded characters
are more complex, and cannot be described with just a few adjectives. They have many personality traits, they are both good and bad, they have quirks and habits, they struggle with decisions and they behave in unpredictable ways. The events of the plot of the story change them in some way.
Obviously, rounded characters are more interesting to read (and to write). If you’re writing for the Writing Challenge, it’s difficult to write a fully rounded character; you’ve only got 750 words to squeeze in so much—your plot, your characters, your theme, a whole bag of tricks. But it can be done, and the rest of this lesson will focus on methods of characterization—creating rounded characters. I’ll try to make this general enough for all fiction writers—not just those who write for the Challenge.
Characterization can be achieved in three ways:
1. Through description of the character.
This is not to say that you need to open with a paragraph that describes the character from head to toe. But a mention of her greasy hair or his argyle vest will help your reader to draw some conclusions about them. If he continually taps his foot—if she walks briskly—all of these sorts of things begin to take form in your readers’ imaginations.
2. Through the character’s actions
. This is a bit more involved than the foot-tapping or brisk walking; it is the actions they perform which become significant events in the story or which allow the reader to peek into the character’s soul. A woman jerks her child away from a person in a wheelchair…a man quickly turns off his computer when his boss enters the room…a teen walks down a row of desks and drops a note on one of them…a child buries a wrapped package in the garden. These actions, and the characters’ emotions as they perform them, further develop fully rounded characters.
3. Through the character’s words and thoughts
. Her words may identify her educational or economic status, or her ancestry, or her age, or her personality characteristics (introverted, whimsical, belligerent). For this reason, it’s especially important that you have your character speak in a manner that is authentic. If you’re writing a doctor, make sure that the doctor speaks with the terminology and the informal lingo of a doctor. Make sure that your characters words are true to all of the things that describe her; if she is an elderly, cranky, wealthy, educated socialite, all of her dialogue must ring true to all of those descriptors. If you’re writing a teenager and you haven’t been around teenagers in a while, spend some time listening to how teenagers speak. Inauthentic dialog makes your characters unbelievable.
Your characters’ thoughts will shed even more light on their words and their actions: if she is giving a bottle of water to a homeless person while thinking, just take it, don’t talk to me, I need to get out of here
—well, your readers know a good deal about her from just those few words.
I’ve got a story for you to read for your homework, and you can use it to answer some questions about characterization: Something Like LightHOMEWORK:
Read the story above, and then answer any of the following questions.
Which character(s) is/are flat characters? What makes them flat?
Which character(s) is/are rounded characters? What makes them rounded?
Give an example of Pearl’s actions that add to her characterization.
Give an example of Pearl’s speech that adds to her characterization.
Give an example of Pearl’s thoughts that add to her characterization.
I didn’t really describe Pearl, other than mentioning her age. Write a sentence that might fit somewhere in this narrative, using something that might describe Pearl and add to her characterization.
Finally, ask any question or make a comment about characterization.