Characterization in 5 Easy Steps with No Baking Required
by M.C. Moulton
I’m going to be honest here, when it comes to writing fiction characterization is the single most important thing there is. Plot, structure, syntax, locations; everything else takes second seat to characterization. Don’t believe me?
Think of the last time you saw a movie where you said to yourself, “This was a really good idea but they just gone done and ****** it up.” Now think of a time where you were like, “Well it would have been good but the actress playing so and so drove me crazy.”
Now picture a movie where you know it was bad, but the characters/actors were just so good you didn’t care. I’m going to use Pulp Fiction as an example here. Plot wise Pulp Fiction is a mess, makes hardly any sense, and has uncountable plot holes. But you know what? No one cares. Why? Because the characters are so vibrant and full of life that it distracts you from the above facts. (See Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show vs. The Last Airbender movie for a perfect example of how good characterization can literally make the same story 100x better).
Which is the reason it boggles my mind whenever I read someone’s work and every character is a drone.
Don’t be a drone!
To help aid people in their quest for better characterization I’m going to give you 5 quick tips on how to a more interesting and believable character.
1) Stereotypes and archetypes are your friend
“But stereotypes are bad!” I hear you say. “They lead to bland characters!”
Giving a character a stereotype or an archetype is an excellent way to help mold what actions they would take or what they would say in any given situation. Here’s an example.
Tiffany is the head cheerleader. She is very blonde, very pretty, and very dumb. She has a math exam next week. She is most likely going to fail.
I have now stereotyped Tiffany and she sounds boring. Let’s try again.
Tiffany lost both her parents in a tragic accident when she was seven. She was tossed around foster homes until she eventually wound up living with the Smiths. She inherited her mother’s good looks but because of the turmoil at home she never had time to study or felt the need. She’s spending Friday night partying with her friends instead of studying because she doesn’t see the point. What she doesn’t know is that failing her math exam is going to get her kicked off the cheer squad.
Now Tiffany sounds a bit more interesting, but you know what? Both of the above paragraphs are the same character. Tiffany is still pretty, dumb, and going to fail that test. Nothing has really changed. You can give her any back story you want and it doesn’t change the fact she will always be pretty, dumb, and going to fail the test. You never have to wonder what Tiffany is going to do when presented with a problem. You know she’ll party, you know she won’t study, and you know she’ll fail.
The best part about stereotypes? Breaking them. Now that Tiffany has been established with her stereotype this opens the door for development as a character. Any number of things can happen that would cause or force her to study, which puts her out of her element, and leads to growth. Is it a cute boy? Does her best friend die? Is it a vampire? Whatever it is Tiffany will be forced to deal with it and that is what makes her interesting.
2) Boring is Good. Exciting is Bad.
It sounds a little backwards I know, but one mistake I see a lot of people do is make their characters far too interesting from the get-go.
If I told you Tiffany was not only a cheerleader, but also a spy, a vegan, a vampire hunter, who also happens to be dating a vampire, an expert marksman, a Nobel prize winner, a mad scientist, and a painter, she would not only be completely unidentifiable as a character, she would come with so much baggage it would cause readers’ heads to explode trying to keep it all straight. If your story revolves around this Tiffany suddenly finding out her parents are mermaids, everyone is going to go “Who the **** cares she’s a vampire hunter scientist who only eats vegetables!”
The boy who lived is the perfect example of why boring is good.
Harry starts out extremely uninteresting as a character. He lives in a mundane house with an abusive family, wears broken glasses and crappy clothes, and has absolutely no friends.
Then a giant bearded man shows up and starts singing, “I know we just met, and this is crazy, but my name’s Hagrid, you’re a wizard Harry!”
And Harry’s all like, “I’m a what!?”
Harry started boring then moved on to exciting and took us along for the ride. Would it have been nearly as interesting if he had started out as a wizard? No, because then we wouldn’t have gotten to experience the transition from mundane to extraordinary with him.
3) Say It Out Loud
Unless you’re extremely concerned with your image or your family is ready to call the loony bin on you, I’ve found an excellent way to develop speech is to literally say it out loud.
Acting can be fun. Pretend you are your characters when you’re writing a scene. Say the dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Is that really something someone would say? Is that how they would say it?
This works even better for accents or strange/foreign speech patterns. Is one of your characters a pirate? Rustle up your best pirate voice and start spitin’ out the lines. Is the heroine a Victorian era debutante? Try to be as posh as you possibly can. Often times you’ll find that lines you write sound a lot different in your head than when you say them out loud.
4) Drowning in a Sea of Axe Murdering Clowns from Hell
If every character in your story is an axe murdering clown from hell, they might as well all not be axe murdering clowns from hell. See where I’m going with this?
It’s tempting to give all of your characters likable personalities, interesting back stories, and awesome dialogue. Tiffany is a vampire hunter. John is a demon from hell. Alex is a werewolf. Bambi is ironically a half-human half-deer hybrid. They also all have sharks for pets.
The problem now is that everyone is far too interesting. None of them stand out because the next person in line is just as crazy. There’s no proverbial diamond in the rough. This is just as bad as having all of your characters be mundane drones. Sometimes side characters have to take a back seat to let your main one shine through. You then run the risk of what I like to call “Misplaced Protagonist Syndrome”.
We’ve all been there. You’re reading a book, watching a movie, playing a video game, and there’s a character that is just far more interesting than the main character? You say to yourself, “Man, I really wish we were following that guy, because whatever he’s doing sounds way more awesome than what we’re doing. Example time with our heroine Tiffany again.
Tiffany stirred her tea.
“Is it good?” John asked.
“Very,” she replied.
“I like chamomile personally,” Bambi said between brief sips from her cup.
“Does anyone know what time it is?” Tiffany asked.
“Nope,” everyone replied in unison.
Suddenly the door burst open and Alex came stumbling in covered from head to toe in blood. His wide panic stricken eyes swept across the room as his twitching fingers fumbled with the silver knife in his hand. His rapid breaths showed no sign of slowing as he tried to catch his breath. A handful of dragon scales and jewels tumbled from his pocket onto the ground.
“Care to join us for some tea?” Tiffany said as she offered up a cup to Alex.
“Why, yes please,” Alex said, taking his place at the table.
Unless you have no soul your reaction to the above paragraph should be “Why on earth are we following Tiffany drinking tea instead of Alex slaying dragons!?” The main character has now been completely overshadowed by one of the supporting cast and readers are distancing themselves from your protagonist. I think it goes without saying but that is a bad thing.
Side Note: If the above paragraph was written to create suspense as to what was going on with Alex that’s fine, but you’d better damn well TELL us what happened.
5) Believability and Reasoning
This is probably the single most important idea when it comes to characterization which is why I left it until last. This ties in very strongly with creating and developing a plot, but the general idea is that your characters can do absolutely anything you want them too as long as it’s believable within the confines you’ve set. Tell me what’s wrong with this example.
John held out a bag of cocaine to Tiffany. “Try it.”
“No,” Tiffany replied. “I don’t do drugs.”
The ending of this exchange is ridiculous. Tiffany has absolutely zero reason to try to cocaine. In fact, not only has she repeatedly rejected it up until the end, she denies the notion entirely by letting the reader know she doesn’t do drugs. It’s out of character and makes no sense. If you were Tiffany would you have just up and changed your mind? But the problem is you, as a writer, NEED Tiffany to try those drugs for some reason. Maybe it’s for character development or plot line reasons, but one way or another you have to get her to try it. This can be remedied very easily by introducing a believable element into the story. Let’s try again.
John held out a bag of cocaine to Tiffany. “Try it.”
“No,” Tiffany replied. “I don’t do drugs.”
“Come on,” John repeated as he raised the barrel of his pistol against Tiffany’s temple.
Now Tiffany has a very valid reason for trying the cocaine in that not doing so would most likely result in her death. It’s also believable John would have a gun since he appears to be a drug dealer of sorts.
With that said everyone is happy, believable, and on their way to becoming wonderful characters (if you consider a drug dealer and a crack whore vampire vegan cheerleader wonderful).
M. C. Moulton is currently living in Kansas and trying desperately not to be swept away by a tornado to a magical land of munchkins. In his off time he’s lazily at work on the Arcanum sequels or playing way too many video games. Oh yeah and he’s awesome.
Thanks to Mythos, I am pleased to say I have 5 ecopies of Arcanum to give away!
Between fighting a race of magic-wielding winged monsters, scaling Krakens, blinding Cyclops, running from Sirens, and being abducted by pirates it’s all Arc Arcanum can do to keep his head on straight; literally. After losing the only home he’s ever known, and with nowhere else to turn, Arc enlists with the Human Liberation Front to fight against a ruthless species known as the Winged Ones and prevent them from unleashing a world-wide human holocaust. He’s tasked (completely by accident) with escorting humanity’s last hope, a red-eyed android named Celeste, across the sea to one of the few remaining human safe havens. To make matters worse he’s accompanied by two fellow cadets: the feisty vixen Rose and the polyamorous playboy Prince, both of whom seem entirely set on making sure nothing goes as planned. It’s a magical journey that proves blood isn’t the only bond that makes a family.
Competition ends on 10th April 2014
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