Part 2: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


Today’s post is the 2nd in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”

Part 2: The True Empowering Definition of “Character”

There are three ways you, as a writer, can define character.  One of them is dictionary-like and completely less than relevant to this discussion.  One is simply a literary adjective. 

And the other is the key that can unlock, perhaps for the first time, your understanding of what the character target really is for writers of fiction.

The dictionary definition: a character is a person, an individual, who occupies a role in your story.  A one-man play has one character.  An ensemble story has many characters.  Forget it, since simply casting someone into your story does not make them a character in a literary sense.  Literal, perhaps, but that’s not good enough.  At least not if you want to sell that story.

The literary adjective definition, one too-often adopted by writers without further depth: someone who is funny, unique, clever, unusual, remarkable, the class clown, a cut-up.  As in, that woman was a real character.  That Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump: yeah, he was quite a character.  Your uncle Melvin when he drinks too much at Thanksgiving… man, what a character.

This implies that all those surface affectations, habits and irritating ticks are the stuff of character.  They’re not.  They’re just quirks.  They may be quirks that connect to deeper issues, but unless those deeper issues are in play, then they’re nothing more than distracting frosting.

Pay attention, because if that’s how you are crafting your characters, stuffing them full of quirks and ticks that don’t connect to the next definition, then you’re not going deep enough.

•  The third, and best definition of character, especially for writers: one’s level of integrity, honesty, courage, reliability, strength and beliefs – or not – and how these qualities manifest within the story.

The “or not” tag here is important, because I’m not suggesting that all characters must be virtuous.  It’s the level and nature of these things that defines character, and thus becomes a tool chest for the writer to craft characters with a unique place in the story’s world.

Using the Real World as a Guideline

To further illuminate the critical context of this definition, think of someone you admire in your life.  Chances are they are a person of great character, they hold the qualities listed above to some extent and apply them to their actions in some way. 

With characterization in a story, though, believing and acting are different things.  A person who believes but is afraid to act is one kind of character, a person who jumps in at their own peril is another.  Both display character, but how they manifest it within the story is how the character will be perceived by the reader.

Now think of someone you don’t admire, and you’ll probably agree they are a person who lacks character.  Maybe not across the board, but at least in one area. 

True Character vs. Quirks

This realm of context – what is the nature of their true character? – is something that you, as a writer, need to understand and put to work for you.

It doesn’t matter whether your character chews gum in church, wears loud shorts, clips their fingernails in public, listens to weird music in their car… or whatever quirk you find interesting.  None of that is character, it’s just window dressing, frosting on the character cake.

What defines your character is what they do, what they say, and how they act in key moments of decision in your story.  It is how they make those decisions — the roots that lead to them — in context to what’s at stake.

A person who jaywalks may not be a person of little character, they may be the finest human being ever to walk your city’s streets.  But a person who walks past the victim of a hit and run without helping (that jaywalker, perhaps), is a person who lacks character, no matter how likable they may be otherwise.

If you’ve done your job as a storyteller, you’ve put your main character(s) into tight spots and situations in which there are consequences and stakes.  How you have them respond to those moments is the defining moment of their character. 

Even if they use too much after shave and wear funny hats. 

The Inherent Risk of Quirks

The use of quirks brings risks.  I read a story once where an all-American hero, clean-cut, brave, generous to a fault, the kind of guy  you’d want your daughter to marry, also happened to smoke unfiltered Camel cigarettes.  This might work if the guy was, say, 82 years old.  But his hero was in his early 3os, and it’s fair to say that virtually nobody in the real world who fits those adjectives — nobody you’d want in your story — smokes unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and that no parent with a brain would want their daughter to marry that guy, even if he was Dudley Doright himself. 

Because the Marlboro man, as a role model, is dead.  All because of character.

This is called a wrong note, and too many of them will get your story rejected.  Because, like the proverbial poop in a punchbowl, it ruins the balance of the whole thing.  What was intended to be a quirk ends up sabotaging the story, because the quirk implies a connection to something that didn’t fit the hero’s character.

Sometimes it’s the little things that trip us up.

Juggling the Balls of Characterization

In building our characters, we need to begin with an understanding of who they are, character-wise, and in this empowering, decision-driven context.  Only then can we successfully imbue them with little quirks and foibles for our amusement – making sure they are a good fit when we do – and we should never allow a shallower level of characterization to define and drive our character’s path through the story.  Even by implication.

Bill Clinton was a great and complex character in real life.  Scary smart, brave, charismatic, patriotic, handsome, rich… and, quite willing to look 200 million Americans in the eye and lie through his whitened teeth (as in, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”). 

And then there are those who defend him by claiming oral relations are not sexual relations.  Characters all.  None of them heroes, by the way.

All of these traits are issues of character, much less so than his preference for cigars and junk food, though the former did end up playing a key role in his ultimate display of his true character-self.

The surface dressing of characterization through little bits and bites of quirks and habits, if that’s all you do, is one of the great hallmarks of unpublished stories.  Approach the building of your characters from a more informed, decision-based perspective and you’ll find your story richer for it.

Photo credit: benjieordonz

Next post: understanding the psychology of character… because you just can’t make this stuff up.



Filed under Characterization Series

6 Responses to Part 2: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. Thanks, Larry. Again, my brain went into automatic search mode, thinking of memorable characters from novels, films and TV series that leapt to mind. (George Baillie, Jack Bauer and most of the cast of the West Wing arrived first…) When I get over the brain fry, I’ll sit with my family and a glass of wine and we’ll figure out our top ten.

    I’ll then go on and see which of the Nora Roberts’ characters from my last dose of ‘research’ I can actually remember!

  2. spinx

    Who cares what the fuck Bill Clinton does with his genitals?

    Seriously, some things you Americans just have… wrong.

  3. @Spinx — you’ve missed the entire point. Nobody cares what Bill Clinton “does” with his genitals, at least in this context. This is an issue of action defining character and inner complexities, and thus, actions become the pallet of the writer in creating the landscape of a character. This isn’t a political value discussion, it’s a writer’s toolchest discussion. And if you’re suggesting that moral compass (and yes, that includes adultery and, in the case of the French, assault with intent to rape) doesn’t bear upon leadership qualities, then perhaps it’s you that has it wrong (remember a guy named Hitler? Isn’t racial prejudice and complete moral depravity an indication of leadership in that example? Read anything about Saddam? Duh…). If, in your fiction, a population elects, say, a known child abuser to office, then it really does say something about the character of that population, as well as the candidate. Your implied argument that they are separate (moral compass vs. ability to lead) are separate is… to quote you… so wrong.

  4. spinx

    WOW- I came to re-read this one more time- certainly not expecting to find this shocker!

    Didn´t even think that anyone , much less you, would still read this.

    This is absolutely not an issue of character or action, but of different mentality. It has nothing to do with politics.

    Yes, a moral compass would indeed be needed, and one in our favour at that, to lead a whole nation, but only in the fields that matter. Loyality to your country, respect for your people, the will to do well.

    Chosing his next sleepingpartner has little to do with leading a country.

    And come on now- Hitler? Sadam? Are you serious?

    There is a reason why their acts are considered a crime againts humans and should get everyone in prison. What is Bill Clintons crime? That he was horny? So what? I doubt that his needs had much influence on his politics- whereas Hitlers and Sadams desires had everything to do with theirs.

    And to compare this with chidlabuse?
    Sexual acts on which both parties agree are one thing, forcing yourself on anyone, much less a child, something completely different (or minors, as in Berlusconis case). Again, there is a reason why the latter gets you in jail.

    Moral compass vs. ability to lead, are indeed separate. We have other great politicians, economics, policeofficers who manage to lead just well, and for years so, and how many of those do you think had affairs in that time as well? Ones the population never found out about?

    I am sure you too have friends, best friends maybe, with who you have experienced much, good and bad; friends who have helped you through hard times- now answer me, would any of those experiences somehow falter, or suddenly turn less relevant if you were to find out one of those friends had cheated on their wifes?

    I doubt that you would drop them just like that. And why not then? Because their private affairs are none of your business, and not for the public to judge it.

    Now, about Bills moral integrity. You make that too easy. Just because you beliefe that there only is one side to it, doesn´t mean that others do so as well.
    There are always (at least two) more sides to it. Leading a country and leading a family life have very little to do with each other- just because he was willing to betray his wife does not mean that he was willing to betray his country, or his other politic beliefs.

    His moral integrity towards his family may not have been the best, but his moral integrity towards his job always remained clear of any such misgivings (of course, according to ones own political values).

  5. @Spinx — I respect your opinion, and it merits reflection. That said, let’s agree to disagree. I prefer to hold the leaders of nations to a higher standard. IMO they SHOULD be better than the rest of us, and on all counts, to deserve the position to which we’ve elected them. This isn’t a private company, this is a government, it’s a public venue, not a private one. Moral compass is reflected in personal choices as well as political and social choices, anything less is hypocrisy. And I don’t want a hypocrit, or a horny old fart, running my country. What’s the difference between adultery and prejudice or graft or greed or favoritism based on contributions? Answer: there isn’t any. It’s all a demonstration of lack of character. Our leaders can be wrong, but they shouldn’t be scumbags. (Should an athlete who gets caught betting on their games be allowed to continue to play, just because they’re good at their game? Life isn’t that simple. A public persona changes expectations and responsibilities, like it or not, because the safety zone of “privacy” goes away.)

    Do you really want a Senator representing you who has posted his junk on Facebook? I don’t think so.

    Just my opinion. Hope you respect it, as well. Thanks for the back-and-forth, delighted that you’re here. L.

  6. spinx

    To disagree………..hmm…..agreed. Of course- as if any such subject could be discussed anyways. I have long since realized that people would rather take their opinion into their grave than admit any fault.

    And of course I respect your opinion- how could I not? It was never about being right to me. Trust me, if it were only about that, I would hardly be here every week, on your page, taking notes and trying to get this whole writing thing sorted out.

    And no, just to make this clear, I do not want criminals to lead us, atlethes who use drugs, or politicians who put their junk up on twitter either.
    But you see, as you pointed out, this is where we differ- because none of those things meassure up with adultery to me. (As mentioned, they should clearly get you in prison!)

    Love, or what different people assume to be love (or have come to associate with love), affairs- for petty reasons, for sex, for whatever sake; changing your partners once a week, ect- I know what pain it can cause people.
    It is nothing I would agree with, nothing I would tolerate or wish upon anyone- however, all those things listed above remain something I can at least understand.

    None of them right, but love, and all it´s demons, seem to be that one black void that has everyone confused- it is the one topic where intellect leaves our mind the most, where black and white sepperate for grey, where everything is allowed- chaos.

    I have seen smarter and better people than Bill Clinton fall victim to it. I have seen more monogamous people commit worse.
    I do not need “my” politicians to stand as parade examples of what people should be- wouldn´t mind if they did- but I am very much capable of leading my life the right way without their guidance.
    That´s where the eurpopean mentality kicks in, in some bits, I guess. We do not really feel that close to our political leaders, we do not watch their personal lifes- as it matters very little to us, as long as they fulfill their duty.

    Agh….I wrote too much, nonsense most of it- I´m sorry. See, what really just doesn´t sit well with me is nothing but the way the american media tends to treat such personal affairs (apologies, a la Tiger Woods, and the likes).

    That and nothing else. Not your post or your take on actions reflecting character. All of which were right.
    So yeah…..shake hands and all that, right?

    And trust me, I am way more delighted that you are here. Keep up the good work, stay healthy- and, stay in love.

    Peace out ;t