Vision: A Resource for Writers
from the Soul
Names of Parents. Check.
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?"
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
if you can't base a character on a real person, what do you do?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.