Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Characters from the Soul

By
Linda Adams

2003, Linda Adams 

 

here was a fiction book I read recently that made me feel like the characters were done from a checklist:

    Name.  Check.

    Birthplace.  Check.

    Names of Parents.  Check.

    Favorite Color.  Check.

    Flaw.  Check.

And that was all the characterization the author did.  His characters were interchangeable; when he switched to a new scene, I had to stop to think, "Now which character is this again?"

Characterization is one of the most challenging aspects of writing.  Alas, there isn't a magic formula that will help.  Good characters come from within.  You have to reach down and pull them out.  And you have to be willing to expose a bit of yourself to the world.

Start with the most important rule:  You're not reporting on real life--you're interpreting it.  Remember the standard television storyline where the star decides to write a novel and bases the characters on his friends?  Many real writers do the same thing.  The inherent problem with this is it doesn't create believable characters.

What?  But they're based on real people!  How can they not be believable?  Remember the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, and apply it to characterization as well.  Though the character may be based on a real person, your readers will sometimes find it difficult to believe such a person could exist.

There are also additional limitations.  One is that some of the foibles you don't mind putting up with when you're with the real person can make a character very tiresome or even annoying.  That goes back to interpreting life not reporting it.  Yes, you may be basing your character on your best friend, and he's compulsively neat--but that doesn't make it interesting to the reader for an entire novel.

Another limitation is character growth.  Because you're relying on a single person to help you characterize, you'll tend to follow the path of that person, not the path the character needs to take for a satisfying story.

But the worst limitation is most people don't want characters based on themselves. You may inadvertently alienate friends because your interpretation of them is very different than the way they see themselves.

So if you can't base a character on a real person, what do you do?

Start with the name.  Treat your characters as if they were your children.  Once you've given them a name, it is a permanent part of their lives in your book.  That means they have to live with the consequences of the name you chose.

Each name creates a specific image in the reader's mind.  These are images you can exploit.  The first image is, of course, stereotypes.  There are some names that have cultural baggage associated with them and generally should be avoided.  Cultural baggage may make the names distasteful to the reader or build the wrong image.  You'll know what names these are simply by your reaction to them.

Listen to the sound of the names.  Some names have a very harsh, even blunt sound.  Others are more soft and subtle.  You can use a soft-sounding name to balance a blunt character or further add to the image of character lacking confidence.

Next, decide what each character looks like.  A lot of writers shy away from description because they feel they should leave the reader to imagine what the character looks like.  However, characterization begins with what the character looks like.

Think about it.  When you see a woman with blonde hair, you form opinions even before you speak with her.  An actress, blonde early in her career, recently returned to her brunette hair color.  She was amazed at how everyone suddenly respected her.  Just because of hair color.

You don't need a detailed statistical description of the character listing all the measurements and coloring.  Rather, select one or two details other characters will notice and react to.  This doesn't just develop one character--it develops all the characters.  You can even use it to create a plot complication.

But names and description are only one small part of a characterization.  To build an in-depth characterization requires some careful thought.  Consider not only the character, but the other characters she is relating to, and the story.  A lot of writers shape the characters to the story, which can force your protagonist to go out of character to meet the story's requirements.  Instead, it should be a tightly woven mix of shaping the story to your characters and shaping the characters to the story.  But never compromise the characters for the sake of the story.  You'll disappoint the reader and lose credibility.

To build the characters, start writing the story.  One of the best ways to kick start a characterization is put two characters together.  Best friends.  Now comes that reaching down inside part.  Remember a friendship from ten years ago.  How you clowned around like kids.  How you talked about a lot of stuff, and she helped you through some problems at the right time.  How, one day, a fleeting doubt popped into your head that you dismissed because she was your friend.  Take it a step further and put a betrayal into the friendship later into the course of the story.  What small, subtle details can you add to the early chapters to show the fracturing of the friendship?  Use an event in the plot and the character's reactions to it to force the fractures to widen.

Remember, earlier we said our perception of another person doesn't match their perception of themselves.  Use that to add unexpected depth to your story.  Haven't you ever wondered why a friend turned a cold shoulder to you, without explanation?  Or how you felt like you couldn't do anything right, not realizing an acquaintance admired you for the same traits you were berating yourself over.  You can explore that and more by showing your protagonist through the eyes of all the other characters.

Consider also the gender of your characters.  In a group comprised of a single gender, that person will act very differently then around groups with mixed genders. 

There are some pitfalls with writing characters of the opposite gender you should be aware of, however.  Men tend to write how they perceive women; women tend to write men the way they want them to be.  This is one of the reasons many women read romances but also why many men hate romances.  A good book on men and women from the self-help section of your bookstore will give you some insights into how to use the gender differences in your story.

It's probably going to take about a third of your book before you get to know your characters.  By then, you've introduced everyone as well as the main elements of the story.  When you revise, return to the early chapters to bring the characterizations up to the standards of the later chapters.  Look for opportunities for foreshadowing future growth.  Ensure your characters are true to who they have become in the later chapters.

Finally, set a goal for yourself.  When you start a new project, always strive to create a character very different from the last one you just wrote.  It's easy to fall into the comfort zone of doing the same type of character over and over again, but this will ultimately limit your opportunities in coming up with fresh new stories.

Characterization offers a rich tapestry that can make a story come to life.  But you have to reach down and pull out what's necessary to make them work.  If you take the time to do it, your writing will soar. 

Linda Adams grew up in Southern California and served in the Army during the Persian Gulf War.  She has been published in Writer's Journal, The Toastmaster, Potomac Review, and the anthology Nudges From God.  She is co-writing a women's action adventure thriller set in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.  Website: http://www.hackman-adams.com .