Six impossible things

Getting to know them

Characterization is one of the things I had a hard time getting a handle on. In my early books, I was doing it all by instinct – which was all well and good (I still do it pretty much by instinct), except that I hadn’t thought about characterization, about what goes into it or how you do it. I hadn’t educated my instinct.

I got better at it by practicing, but it was a long, slow process because I still wasn’t thinking explicitly about character – what it is, how it’s expressed, how the reader learns about it. It wasn’t until many years and many books later, when I had to explain to someone how it worked, that I started to see what I was doing and figure out how to do it better.

There were several layers of realization for me. The first one was kind of a “duh!” thing – you find out about characters the same way you find out about actual people. You figure out what they’re like based on their physical appearance, what they say and how they say it, what they do, how they act and react, and on what other people say to them and about them, and how people you already know react to them. If someone you already like and trust says that George is a good guy, if a little stuffy, you’re inclined to believe him and give George the benefit of the doubt; if someone you distrust and think is a bad guy says that George is a perfect example of honorable behavior, you’re a lot more inclined to count your change twice when George hands it back to you than to trust him with your wallet and I.D.

The next realization came when I figured out why so many other people thought I didn’t have much problem with characterization – it was because I did dialog reasonably well, and that meant that readers were able to judge my characters based on what they said and on what other characters said to or about them. I was leaving out a lot of the other things that would make my characters deeper and better rounded, but the dialog was enough for a lot of readers to go on with, especially in the sort of adventure novels I was writing at that point.

At that point, I started paying more attention to some of the things I’d been doing by instinct; that is, I started trying to deliberately educate my instincts so that they’d work better without me having to constantly watch what I was doing. Mostly, this involved thinking about exactly how one presents all those aspects of a character’s personality in a novel.

Physical appearance looks easy, at first glance. It’s just a description of what the person looks like, right? Well, yes. But physical appearance is more than height, weight, and the color of hair, eyes, and skin. It includes clothes, which in nearly every society in history have been a marker of class, status, and degree of general coolness, and often of occupation and/or education as well. Things like cut and color, fit, fabric, style, whether clothes look/are comfortable, the degree of repair they’re in, how becoming they are to the person – mentioning just one or two of these can tell a lot about a character and his/her situation. The same goes for a character’s hairstyle and, in the case of men, whether they wear a mustache and/or beard, in what style.

What the character says and how he says it covers tone of voice and vocabulary as well as syntax. It includes things like whether the character is very blunt (“No. Not ever. Not for a million dollars.”), less blunt (“I won’t be available Tuesday. Or any other day.”), or vague and non-committal (“I’ll just have to see how things go.”); whether she yells or whispers; whether he’s gentle or sarcastic or abrupt or abstracted.

What the character does and how she acts divides into two parts: body language and actual actions. Facial expression – smiles, frowns, narrowed eyes, raised eyebrows, twitching lips, blushes – get included her, but so does every other part of the body, which some authors tend to forget. Things like stiffening, turning away, crossing one leg over the other, waving a hand, leaning forward – all these are part of a nearly unconscious mode of communication that all of us do in real life all the time. It’s so nearly unconscious, in fact, that many people have to go to some lengths in order to start seeing it so that they can describe it piece by piece, because they don’t naturally break down “He was interested” into “He leaned forward, eyes fixed on the contract, lips pursed slightly as if to keep from admitting anything too soon.”

For me, my characters’ body language ends up being sort of like method acting. I’ll be writing a scene and type “He was interested” and immediately know I want the specifics. So I act the character in my head:  I’m him; I’m interested; what, exactly, is my body trying to do? Oh, I’m leaning forward – hands are twitching a bit, but they’re under the desk, so nobody would see – eyes want to squint – what’s my mouth doing? Shoulders?   Once I figure all that out, I decide which bits to put into the description, and opt for the pursed lips rather than the tense shoulders.

The other part of “what the character does” is action, which is more movement than body language and comes in two subtypes. First, there’s immediate short-term behavior – whistling, slamming a door, crying, laughing, slapping someone; second, there are more complicated, long-term actions, like buying someone a gift, running away, challenging someone to a duel, pretty much any sort of plot-related activity. With immediate action, I find that the context and body language part is as or more important than the action itself. Someone who flounces out the door, slamming it behind her, does not come across as a threat, while someone who storms out and slams it hard enough to break the glass is a lot scarier.

The hardest part is often figuring out what that particular character would do in a given situation. Would he fidget with his pocket watch? Hum softly? Pace? Start studying the view out the windows? Sigh, softly or noisily? Unobtrusively finger the dagger up his sleeve, in a way that makes everyone watching think that he’s fluffing the ruffled cuff of his shirt?

How the character reacts to different people and situations builds on everything else, because the way they show their reactions is in their dialog and tone of voice, their body language, their immediate and longer-term actions. You can, of course, simply say “Carol disliked Jane instantly,” but it’s usually much more effective to say “Carol stiffened more and more as Jane simpered through George’s rambling introduction. When George finally finished, Carol inclined her head a quarter of an inch. “Pleased to meet you,” she said in an icy tone.”

The longer version is more effective partly because the readers can judge Carol’s reaction for themselves, but also because George’s and Jane’s actions hint at what they’re like and why Carol might be having the reaction she’s having.

I still do most of my characterization by instinct – that is, I don’t get this analytical when I’m actually writing a scene. As I said, for me, it’s more like method acting – trying to be the character for an instant or two, long enough to figure out what to describe. But taking it apart this way helps me educate my instincts, so that I don’t have to stop every time one character is introduced to another whom they dislike, and make lists of all the possible ways she might show her reaction, then consciously and deliberately pick out the one thing that would be right for that character to do/say/think. If I do my thinking about the mechanics of how characterization works outside my actual writing time, I don’t have to do it when I’m trying to figure out the scene.

But that’s me. Your mileage may vary.

  1. I think about my characters a little, but they mostly develop as I write the story. So I find that most of my conscious thinking about characterization comes during revisions, after I’ve gotten to know them better. That’s when I add layers or think about whether the way they are acting in a certain scene is really what they would do.

  2. Time was that I had to write the entire story, beginning to end, and then go back and put in the characters’ motives and the like because only when I knew everything they did, did I know them.

    I’ve gotten better.

  3. I never knew there was that much to characterization! It’s not my strongest point (mostly because my characters are like altered reflections of me) so I want to work on it more. Does anyone else have that problem?

  4. Katya –
    Characterization has definitely been one of the more difficult bits of fiction for me. My trouble seems to be that I want every character to be The Ultimate Character, so I’ve had to work on giving characters bad points and not making every protagonist good at everything. I think you’ve hit something with “characters are like altered reflections of [one]” — I’ve been a vegetarian for 21 years, about 80% of my life, and I find it incredibly difficult to create non-vegetarian characters. Whenever I’ve got people eating something or preparing food, I just automatically make it vegetarian food, ’cause that’s what I have experience with!
    Creating minor characters (or stories with several main characters of nearly equal importance) that don’t all think, talk, act, and opinionate alike is another thing I need to work on…

  5. This was very informative. Thanks!

  6. Katya – I agree with you – all my characters (the good, the bad and the ugly) are aspects of me so I end up feeling like they all sound/act the same, although I’ve had feedback to the contrary so I guess I’m just paranoid, which probably isn’t a bad thing because it keeps me aware of making each character distinct.

  7. I realize I’m a bit late to comment. I found your blog recently and it’s so full of good tips that I’m reading it all the way through. I hope you don’t mind if I ask a few questions.

    I do dialogue reasonably well, but finding the right words to present body language can be problematic. You can only write “He shrugged,” “She sighed,” and “They nodded” so many times before your reader falls asleep on you, but sometimes if your character is conservative, in strong control of his emotions, or a little depressed, that’s really all there is. Any thoughts of how to spice up body language for characters whose focus is being practically a non-entity?

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