Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


Today’s post kicks off a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization” 

Part 1: An Introduction

I know what you’re thinking: been there, done that.  Because there’s very little about writing fiction that’s more common, boringly predominant and – here’s the rub – blatantly obvious than the vast oeuvre of characterization.

You’re heard it all before.  And still, character stumps and challenges you.

It did me, too.  Until I realized there is a better, clearer and more empowering way to understand the art and craft of characterization.  And that’s what this seven-part series is all about… beginning today.

The Mission-Critical Role of Characterization

Some writing gurus beat the character drum to the exclusion of all else.  They’ll tell you that story is character.  That plot is nothing more than giving characters something to do.  That theme is nothing more than characters living into their humanity.

Not wrong, just… less than filling, and perhaps naïve.  And frankly, pretty much useless for the writer trying to actually understand how to put all these pieces together.

So how do you create killer characters, anyhow?  Not just in theory, but in practice?

There are five key principles — criteria, actually — that you need to get your head around.

Sometimes at the beginning of my workshops I’ll ask people to define “story” using only one word.  Many people offer “character” as that one word.

That’s not the right answer, by the way.  Because you can have a great character in place and still not have a story in place.   If you’re trying to think of an example of that, you may not come up with one quickly, and that’s because those stories don’t get published. (See the end of this post for the best answer to that question.)  But I encounter this all the time in unpublished manscripts.

Character is important.  Critically so.  It’s one of the six sets of skills – what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling – that you’ll need to understand and master (to whatever extent possible… that’s the nature of the variable called talent) if you hope to publish your work.

Poor, thin or one-dimensional characterizations — no sale.  Which can also be said for all five of the other core competencies.  Which, in turn, puts them on equal ground for the writer seeking to publish.

Write this down: only by fusing your deep, foundational understanding of character with your equally deep and foundational understanding of the other five requisite core competencies – conceptualization, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice – will you become likely to publish your work.

The key word here is fuse.  Because character infuses everything else in your story.

The Eternal Search for Quality Characterization

I don’t know about you, but I find most of the so-called conventional wisdom about characterization to be obvious to the point of uselessness.  If you’ve been around long, you know that we’re all about approaching the craft of storytelling a little – okay, a lot – differently, a fresh and clarifying perspective that is anything but obvious.

Very quickly in this series you’ll realize what may be lacking in your characters.  For me, it happened in what I’ll cover in Part 2, which is the very definition of character itself.  That one thing enabled me to write characters that reviewers report are fully fleshed, multi-dimensional and compelling.

And that’s just one of the five primary principles to be learned here.

This series will rip deeply into the heart of the art and craft of characterization, identifying the elements and criteria for execution at a publishable level.

All that no-shit-Sherlock stuff about character we encountger at workshops and in writing magazines?  Well, it’s all good — I’m serious, it really is good — but unless you understand the deeper foundational premises that make those points valid — and there are five of them — it’s all just frosting on the character cake.

If the cake sucks, the frosting won’t save it.  Even it looks pretty.

In this series we’re gonna bake up a cake that will turn you into a bonafide master chef where character is concerned.  Because we’ll look at what makes characters work in your story – not just how they look or sound in your story, a key difference – regardless of how you dress them up or what you make them say.

What’s Lacking in the Conventional Wisdom of Character

In the March ’09 issue of The Writer, a very fine magazine indeed, the lead article was entitled, “Breathe Life Into Your Characters.”  At this point you may be saying, sure, sounds great, who wouldn’t want that? 

After this series, you’ll recognize most of what that and other how-to articles about characterization as nothing more than frosting.  Because you can breathe life into something that is still boring, illogical, less than compelling and completely unheroic… those characters are just lively while they’re at it.

You need more than lively characters.  You need depth and substance, you need relevance, a basic connection to the reader that is as real as it is compelling and entertaining.  You need bonafide heroes, arch villains, complex players on an intricate dramatic stage.

The article goes on to explain things like giving the character a life of their own (a great tip, one I include in my 101 Tips ebook.. good thing there are 100 others)… show your characters’ feelings (as opposed to what?)… assign them meaningful goals (like, that’s not obvious)… give them idiosyncrasies and habits (ouch!… this is a huge pitfall, folks, if that’s all you do)… give them inconsistencies (hmmm… humanity 101)… giving them cool names (please…) and giving them relationships with others (one word: duh).

Wow.  Isn’t your world just rocked by all that?  Insert huge yawn here.

You deserve better.  You deserve a foundational understanding of character, something that is so rarely defined or available.

Over the next six posts here on you’ll see it all unfold before your hungry eyes.  Five key principles of characterization, all wrapped together into an integrated landscape of storytelling, wherein character becomes plot, plot becomes theme, structure becomes concept and all of it becomes irresistible to your readers.

Next post: the true definition of character.  Sounds boring, but trust me, it isn’t what you think it is, and it can be the most empowering thing you’ll ever learn about crafting great characters.  It was for me.

Note: the one word that best defines story, at least to an extent that one single word is even capable of doing so, is conflict.  No conflict, no story.  Period.

Photo credit: Ron Mueck



Filed under Characterization Series

17 Responses to Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. Very much looking forward to this series.

    i’m comfortable with my MC, and most of my other characters, but with the antagonists and minor characters i think they fall a bit flat. i’m thinking that this topic in your teaching style will help me to liven up the characters that are just a bit bland right now.

  2. paulette

    i agree with adam. I’m looking forward to the series. I’ve read the “basics” and applied them, and i still get the comments of “i don’t get this character”. So, i’m all for the real help now!

    oh, and by the way, you’ve touched on the basics of your 6 core principles to help us understand them (big help). Well, all except one that is: concept. Still waiting for that one. You mentioned how dramatically “different” it is than theme once you understand the difference between the two (dangling carrot in front of nose) and then talked about theme, but not concept. I wanna make sure i got them straight.

    thanks for all your help! it’s awesome.

  3. Shirls

    Larry, this blog is my absolute favourite and just keeps getting better. So keen was I to grab your latest article I clicked on the RSS feed this morning and I guess I was a bit too soon, because I got the last in the series. Sorry, I thought you’d gone slightly mad, but it was peeking in the oven before the cake is baked.

  4. @ adam — good call, since characterizing our bad guys/gals is often short-changed and can add a rich layer to the story. Readers love compelling antagonists, and the deeper and more complex they are, the more strangely alluring they become. Good for you, this could be a huge breakthrough. (Rent the DVD “The Island,” a killer sci-fi flick directed by Michael Bay; the bad guy is very richly drawn, with sympathetic motivations confused by sociopathic execution. Pretty brilliant.)

    @ Paulette — I promise, I’ll do a piece on concept vs. theme soon after this 7-part series concludes. They are actually quite different elements, but people tend to confuse the words… sort of like the words “hot” and “spicy” are often confused, but are really very very different things. For now, it boils down to this: “concept” is the essence of the idea (such as, a storya about a divorce)… while “theme” is what the story means (such as, a story about how deceit erodes a marriage). Hope that helps in the short term.

  5. @ Shirls — I get accused of being slightly mad all the time, actually, and it’s too true too often. 🙂

    What happened is… in posting all 7 entries in the series (because I’m out of town for these next two weeks), the 7th got “published” instead of “time stamped” for later publication. That resulted — much to my surprise — in the post going out to my RSS feeds, even though I pulled it down off the site within minutes. Email subscribers didn’t get it… and hopefully everyone will get it in about 12 days when it appears at the end of the series. Hope it didn’t ruin the ending… my guess is, it didn’t, it might actually help to see where this is going.

  6. Really looking forward to this one, Larry.

    I agree, the conventional wisdom on characterization gets stale once you have some idea of what you’re doing.

  7. Rene

    I am looking forward to this series more than I can say. (kind of sorry I missed the sneak preview that Shirls got ! 🙂

  8. Mr. Brooks – I am almost drooling about the next installment. Looking forward to your insight into this most critical component of fiction. The more I learn about life the more I understand characters, but I’m looking forward to your insight. I want to be a bonafide master chef, too!

  9. Patrick Sullivan

    Going to be curious to see what you dish up with the rest of the series. Between your other blog posts and the 101 ebook you’ve given me plenty to think about already.

    Shirls wasn’t the only one to find a present in their RSS feed, though I’ve been good so far and not read it, though I’m tempted >_>.

  10. Patrick Sullivan

    BTW Larry qualified in the top 27 towards that top 10 writing blogs list that was mentioned on here a while ago:

  11. Glad to see you in the list! You deserve to be there. (Top three next time!) I was happy to see a few of the blogs I enjoy and support there.

    I’m really looking forward to this series. Whether or not conflict is the core of a good story, for me, character is the heart and soul – even if the main character’s a place. If I’m not interested in or can’t stand the character(s) in the first few minutes of a film, I don’t watch any more. When I’m reading, it’s a matter of pages. Life’s too short to read books or watch films that don’t engage me.

    I’ve been ill and tired recently, and because of that, I haven’t been able to read your last few posts. You post at a breathtaking, sometimes daunting pace and I often feel I have no time to absorb the previous one properly before I’m on to the next.

    Your posts always make me think; some are so information rich, they fry my brain. (In a good way – think bacon.) More than that, they always make me want to take action, to write, analyse, study, practise and write some more.

    Some days, I just want to dip in; others, I want to take the time to completely absorb and apply your insights.

    I look forward to seeing an autographed copy of Larry’s Big Book of How to Write and get Published on my bookshelves some day; that way, I won’t have to log on or print off to get the benefit of your advice.

  12. Just an update… the posts in this series will appear every other day, so tomorrow (Wednesday) will bring #2. I’m actually out of town over this time, so I “timestamped” the posts, hopefully that will work. (It’s also why #7 snuck through on the RSS feed and appeared on the site for about four minutes before I caught my mistake and took it down.(

    @ Janice – thanks for the good wishes regarding the Top 10 Blogs list. Actually, we’re still in the running for the top 10, even the top 3, as this list is just an alphabetical roster of the 27 nominees. I think he’ll make his cut soon, and I remain hopeful. Because we’re new we won’t score well on some points (such as Technoratic rankings and volume of reader comments), but if he weights pure content and value, I think we stand a good shot.

    Thanks for all for your support on this issue, and for Storyfix in general. The future looks bright!

  13. Just a quick thanks for a great post

  14. Larry….if he judges by content, you have to win on just that alone! You have the best content! I’m addicted to your site. I’ve got my writer friends dropping in on you too. I told them to vote for you as well. Your information is invaluable. I thought it couldn’t get any better than Story Structure and then you hit me with this dynamic characterization. Kudos!!!

  15. Jack Henderson

    I am looking forward to your ideas and guidance to improving my characters in my stories.


  16. Alyssa

    Um, I’ve just stumbled upon your site and I’m very much enjoying your posts. But I have to tell you…seriously…”irregardless”??? Irregardless is not a word. Sorry, but that made my teeth hurt when I read it.

  17. @Alyssa – thanks, you’re right. And we always need people to remind us of our shortcomings. Will try to do better. Read the rest of my stuff, don’t think you’ll find many of those. Lebron misses a shot now and then, the weatherman gets it wrong once in a while, and I’m sure Stephen King has misspelled a word or two in his time. Maybe you, too.

    I commented on a blog once – couldn’t resist – when a really good writer referred tp something as a “mute point” — so I know the feeling.

    Trust me, lesson learned, I’ll never use “irregardless” again. Hope your teeth feel better soon. 🙂