Putting the Character into Characterization

I’ve stumbled upon the magic pill of effective, compelling characterization.

Me and a million other people who write about writing, and/or simply study and write stories.  It’s been there all along, in certain stories, at varying levels.  And while I noticed… I really didn’t.  Not like this.  Not with this new empowering understanding.

Just like the internal architecture of story parts and milestones – which have also been there all along – the sudden recognition and understanding of what you’re seeing (and what I am about to share with you) can change everything about your ability to write compelling characters.

This is huge.  Get ready to go to the next level.

Like much about grasping and then describing what it takes to write a great story, this is as much about recognizing and verbalizing the essence of something that resists description as it is leaving it to literary instinct or experiential happenstance.

Instinct and happenstance can take decades.  A well-worded, illuminating description can unlock something powerful within a writer in the time it takes to read a single sentence.

Or in this case, a single blog post.

Excellence in characterization is about mastering subtlety and nuance.

Such nuances are too easily passed off as talent or even genius. 

And while that may be true in some cases, it’s also true that once you can see it on the page or screen you are suddenly able to own it for yourself as you write your own stories.  Genius or not.

Nuance cannot be fully appreciated until one first grasps the fundamentals, which are unto themselves eternally challenging.  There is no negotiating the order of that evolution.

In my book I describe several facets of basic characterization techniques: backstory, inner conflict versus exterior conflict, character arc, the three dimensions of characterization (themselves infused with much subtlety and nuance), the seven realms of characterization… all within the context of a journey, quest or need thrust upon the hero by the author.

That’s the 101.  A class from which we should never consider ourselves graduated.

But there’s more to it where compelling character excellence is concerned.

I’m currently reading “The Help,” the blockbuster by Kathryn Stockett, which will be released as a film this summer.  I’m preparing a comprehensive deconstruction series on this book to run here on Storyfix concurrent with the release of the film.

Yeah, get excited, this will be killer.

I found myself hooked on this story from page one, and by page 10 I knew why, even though there wasn’t yet a plot-specific hook in play beyond a bit of clever foreshadowing. 

No, in this novel it was the rarest of hooks that grabbed me… me and about five million other readers.

Not all books have legs like The Help, or The Lovely Bones or Freedom

This is why.

The reader is immediately hooked by the character.

And I wanted to know why.  And therein came my breakthrough.

It’s more than voice (though voice is certainly a tool toward this end), and it transcends the first dimension essence of characterization (surface affectations and the manipulation of exterior perception) to drill straight into the compelling third dimension realm, where true characterization resides.

It’s a deliberate, contextual approach adopted by the author.

Here it is, in a nutshell:

The most compelling way to suck us into a story and have us immediately understand and root for a character (or hate them, your call) – the best way to give your story a shot at huge success – is to show us how the character FEELS about, and responds to, the journey you’ve set before them.

This means character surfaces in the here and now, and along the path to come.  This is the hero’s humanity, for better or worse.  Their opinions, fears, feelings, judgments and inner landscape of response to the moment.

It goes far beyond showing us what they say and do.

The writer who commands this advanced technique of characterization isn’t just showing us what happens.  No, it’s so much more than that.  They’re allowing us into the head of the character as it happens, and in a way that allows us to…

interpret (or misinterpret), emotionally respond to, assess, fear, plan against, flee from or otherwise form opinions about…

… all that is going on for them in a given moment or situation.

This is, at a simplistic level, called point of view

But it is an informed point of view, because we are made aware of how the world, the moment, feels and how it is interpreted by the character.  And in doing so, we immediately empathize.

The key word here is interpreted.

Getting into Aibileen’s head.

In “The Help,” we live this story from the point of view of Aibileen, a “colored” maid working for an ignorant, prissy white housewife social climber in 1962 Mississippi.  We are immediately thrust into this world from her point of view, which is fraught with racial and social prejudice, injustice and corruption to an extent it feels unbearable and unfixable to someone like her, in this time and place.

But Aibileen is the epitome of the literary hero.  Because she does what all heroes do: she summons courage and vision to solve a problem that seems unsolvable, but that must be solved.  Because the stakes outweigh the risks.

This essence surfaces within just a few pages.  All because of the author’s command of nuance in connecting us to the inner emotional and intellectual landscape of the hero’s experience.

It is genius?  Absolutely.  Is it learnable and achievable by other writers?  Also absolutely.

It’s more than characterization.  It’s mind-melding the hero with the reader from an emotional, analytical and sociological point of view.

When done well, it’s the magic pill of characterization.  Empathy, leading to rooting, is the most empowering thing a writer can achieve in the relationship between hero and reader.  It is the whole point.  

Look for it.  See it.  Notice how huge, iconic books have it, and how other books – even when they are entertaining, successful, funny and/or suspenseful, often don’t.

And then, once you get it, strive to own it in your storytelling.

In your experience, what stories optimize this advanced essence of characterization to help it rise to iconic status?

Once understood, once recognized, you can’t put this toothpaste back into the tube.  Welcome to the next phase of your writing journey. 


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

30 Responses to Putting the Character into Characterization

  1. Fantastic post! Very needed advice about characters. Books simply don’t work without good ones.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    I didn’t think about it this way before, but I’d say Feed by Mira Grant (Zombie Apocalypse Story told in the first person) fits the bill. You get everything filtered through her truly and deeply.

  3. ali

    This is an excellent article, thank you! When talking about nuances to fulfill a character in very few words, the character of Kevin from author Guy Gavriel Kay’s FIONAVAR TAPESTRY. For me, Keven is an iconic character who came to LIFE for me, even though he only owned a fraction of the story. Truly, I think Kay does that well with all of his characters in this trilogy (though not so much in others of his works).

  4. Excellent post. Now I have to re-read “The Help” to analyze how the characters were developed. Not that I mind… it’s a great book.

  5. Characterization is the area I’m working on and reading about, but I haven’t heard it said like that: empathize not only with the character but how they feel about the journey they (and you) are embarking on. Wow – thanks!

    looking forward to the full deconstruction

  6. What I find interesting is that the last few days have prepared me precisely for this message. I wrote a piece of short fiction in which the primary antagonist was a personification of will to live. The protagonist had just done something he regretted and didn’t want to go on. The entire piece was written to examine that emotion of regret, and moving beyond it.

    Following that work, I just finished reading A Christmas Carol for the first time (I know, for shame!) and was completely impressed by how Dickens demonstrates the changes in Scrooge over the tiniest moments.

    This message is perfect, and something I continue to try to improve with time.

  7. Yes! Larry, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to hear you’re doing a deconstruction of The Help. I recently finished the book (short review on my nonfiction site here: http://writingwonder.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/the-help-by-kathryn-stockett-a-review/), and was astounded at how satisfied I was with the story. Not that I didn’t expect to be, I just hadn’t read such a compelling story that showed us the characters so well in such a long time.

    The Help is Proof (in my mind at least) that something does not need to blow up on the first page in order for the story to be worthy of a read – yes, I am somewhat irritated by the “professionals” who tell us that. The Help is exactly what I would like to give readers myself – a suspenseful journey by showing how involved, and how passionate, each and every character about their story.

    Thanks so much for yet another great post, and I look forward to this deconstruction!

  8. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    Would you consider the POV technique of “deep” POV or tight third to be the essence of this kind of characterization?
    From what you describe– the feelings and reactions related to the character’s experience are what pulls in the reader.
    As I look at my bookshelf, I see many books that fit this technique. Harlan Coben is one.
    I’m off to check for “The Help” on Kindle.
    I’ll look for your deconstruction in the summer.
    Cheers, Kelly

  9. @Kelly – great question. I think either can work (1st or deep 3rd), but I think first is more fertile and perhaps easier to access. Seems like when a character’s lens is clear to the extent we’re discussing here, it’s usually first. But I have seen it in third, and it’s pretty impressive when it happens. Sometimes a draft that isn’t working gets new life when the author switches from one to the other, too. L.

    @Deanna — “blowing stuff up” early is, I think, as much a function of genre as anything else. Going big early is the common thread of books that seems to have the best shot, and “going big” aligns with the genre at hand. If it’s a thriller, a Big Thrill early (an explosion? “_”) can work. If it’s a love story, a major hormone surge or heartbreak early works. If it’s a character driven story, like “The Help,” then massive character genius early — this is certainly what Stockett delivers — is the ticket.

    Not that books that “ease” into their pace and voice can’t work, either. But that’s a tougher hook, I think, and the reader’s emotions aren’t as quickly involved. The story may end up being and intense reading experience, but we risk the reader not getting it if they don’t get it early. Especially these days, with reader attention spans so short and fickle. Thanks for contributing, Deanna, always good to have you here. L.

  10. THE HUNGER GAMES is in third person, and it’s strange — it doesn’t have overt emotion, but her very numbness makes sense in a PTSD sort of way. Her lack of reaction speaks volumes about her self-protective traits and brutal pragmatism. It kind of reminded me of the creepy “this can’t be good” vibe of Shirley Jackson’s THE LOTTERY. Lot to think about in this post. Thanks!

  11. Larry: You articulate well something I’ve tried to convey to clients & students. I’ve often elaborated on point of view by saying something about “subjective interior space” and “subjective filter.” In essence, it’s attitude (a feeling toward another character, situation, object, event) + worldview (beliefs about good & evil, about how things should turn out, about who or what governs the universe, etc.). You’re right: This subjectivity does help us empathize. AND when a character’s ordinary world gets rattled and shaken, then we get to see whether or not those attitudes and worldview will stay in tact, change, or transform. Thanks for the post.

    @Cathy: Great point about subtlety and emotional numbness. Thanks for that reference.

  12. Kathy Golitko White

    Hi, Larry,
    Great post. I loved THE HELP because of just the thing you’ve talked about in this post. And Kathryn Stockett manages to get at the heart of most of her characters. I have found that many Canadian writers manage this, too. One of my favorites was THE HONEY LOCUSTS by Jeffrey Rounds. Fantastic book that I could not stop thinking about for months. Emotion and character were front and center despite being placed in Sarajevo during the war. The plot, though essential and interesting, and the setting though cruel and horrible, served to highlight the kind of characterization you’ve written about here. Thanks for a great post.

  13. Great post Larry.

    Lately, I’ve been buying and reading a lot of indie ebooks for my Kindle. While the stories are often good, the characters aren’t all that memorable.

    I’m itching for writer’s who can create the sort of characterizations you write about. I want to get fully invested in a character and really care about them like I do when I read authors like Steinbeck, Hemingway, King, Lehane, or Sebold.

    It’s what I think is lacking most in many of today’s stories.

    I’ll definitely add Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” to my Kindle list.

  14. ” . . . is to show us how the character FEELS about, and responds to, the journey you’ve set before them.”

    Do reactive scenes (i.e. Reaction followed by Dilemma followed by Decision) help to accomplish this?

  15. @Philip — actually, I think it goes deeper than how you’ve described “”reactive” scenes. A character can get clobbered with a problem, we learn the stakes and then they make a decision… and yet, it’s possible we never really FEEL what they are feeling, or even knowing what they are thinking and emotionally reacting to. Rather, I think what I’m going for here is less a scene-related nuance than it is a character-driven one, it’s about being inside the hero’s head to an extent that we know their worldview view and their immediate knee-jerk response and evaluation of moments, dynamics and other people, irrespective of accuracy (many times our feeling are reflective of reality, they’re old tapes), stakes or the need for an immediate external response.

    It’s like hating your boss at work. You can hide that completely. And you respond according to the continued need to hide it. And yet, inside, you resent, you fear, you judge, you read meaning into things that may or may not be there. And yet, you don’t let those feelings get in the way of what you need to achieve. I’m saying that showing the reader that inner landscape of true response and emotion and labeling and judgment and view is what creates empathy.

    In “The Help,” the hero just says a humble “yes, maam” when talked down to, when racially discrimated against and judged, and then she does as she’s told. She wants no trouble. But because we see and feel her inner pain and need and sense of fear and the need to preserve her job, we EMPATHIZE more than we would if all we witnessed was her “yes maam” response.

    Hope this clarifies. It goes much deeper than response. It’s about the emotions that surround a response, which may or may not lead to it in a logical sense.

  16. By using empathy and nuance, we authors enable the reader to become part of our story. The reader now contributes to the emotional experiences as a cause, not just an effect of what we are writing.

    When we can help or contribute in any area of life, we feel and know both our worth and others’ worths more deeply. Creating the possibility of empathy/nuance for the reader makes it a lot easier for the reader to adopt the story world into his own world view, at least temporarily, during the period of voluntary suspension of disbelief.

    A high praise of one of our works would be the reader getting “sucked in” or “couldn’t put it down.” Not all of that is because of the action/plot, but because for a while, the reader can be the protagonist and live in the world we have created.

    Go write something great.

  17. Matt Phillips

    Hi Larry – That post really rings true. Emotional content that evokes empathy can add so much to a novel but it’s so hard to get right. It seems that part of the trick is knowing what tool to use when – interior monologue, dialogue, description of the character’s body language or other physical manifestation of the emotion, setting description from the character’s emotional perspective, etc. And do so with subtlety and clarity.

    Ian McEwen does all this really well in Atonement, I think, and as I recall he seems to rely on different approaches more heavily than others for different characters. He uses a lot of interior monologue for Briony and perhaps more physical expression of emotion for Robbie and Cecilia. That was my impression anyway.

    Do you have tips on how to use the various techniques available to convey emotional content within a scene?

  18. Curtis

    Patrick T. You want to toss that story of yours my way? I could use a little ” How-do-I-get-myself-out-of this- self-dug ditch” about right now. 🙂

  19. Of course it’s about the character. Is this news? Hardly. Bad stories have weak characters.

  20. @Jarvis — you’re either over-simplifying or you missed the point entirely. Maybe nuance isn’t your thing. Based on your snarky comment, I’d guess not.

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  22. Damnit, Larry, you did it again. It’s the real deal.

  23. You inspired me to blog about writing pitfalls today. I linked to you; I hope you don’t mind.

  24. nancy

    Larry, Aren’t you describing the M-R units (Motivation and Response) that your friend, Randy, writes about? I think this was described in one of your blog links.

  25. Great post! Excellent points about characterization and creating characters that are realistic and engaging to the reader. Showing the feelings of the character, and their emotional responses, is crucial in creating the empathy with the reader that you rightfully point out as a powerful element of strong story characters. Loved the insight and tips!

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  27. Carolyn

    Thank you for this brilliant insight.

    I think Elizabeth Berg (Open House, Until the Real Thing Comes Along, Say When, and more) is a master at creating character empathy. I get drawn into her stories on page 1, and it is not because there’s a lot of action. It is because of her characters.

    Question for Larry: Are you saying this is easier to accomplish when writing in 1st person rather than 3rd person? I’m a little puzzled, because the advice for a novelist is usually “write in 3rd person because it’s less limiting.” Is that bad advice? Third lets the writer know what everything is thinking, but maybe first lets the writer go deeper. What do you say?

  28. Carolyn

    I meant to say “everyone is thinking.”

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