The first story I ever wrote sounded like a bar joke: An Englishman, an Irishman, a Frenchman, and an American crashed an airplane in a jungle. Yeah, they each had an accent, and they said things like, “Begorrah!” and “Oh, I say, old chap!” No, I will not share the manuscript with you, because I burned it.
But I had the right idea — sort of — and I’ll put it at the top of this list, which is in no particular order, of ten good things to remember about characterization:
- Characters should be distinguishable from one another. Unless there’s a good reason for it, characters in a story or novel should not have names easily confused with each other, and should not talk so much alike the reader can’t tell them apart.
- On the other hand, characters should not be stereotyped (see example above), and they shouldn’t ALL be so quirky they again become indistinguishable.
- The degree to which a character is particularized should be in proportion to that character’s importance. This rule is suspended if you’re Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett, or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- If a character isn’t necessary, leave him, her, or it out. “Necessary” means a character is vital to a scene, preferably in more than one way.
- Your characters do not really take on lives of their own. They take on lives of your own. If a character becomes too big, too vivid, too important for the role you created that character to fill, congratulate yourself and either change your book or excise that character and give him or her a book or story for himself — or herself. Yeah, this him or her stuff is clunky, but I hate that singular “they” thing. I know the singular they is not incorrect, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
- Important characters should have well-thought-out backstories — even if you think them out after you’ve written your rough draft — but you shouldn’t load the backstories into the book. It’s much more interesting to wonder what’s up with a character’s action or reaction.
- It isn’t necessary to describe every character in detail, including the shapes of their eyebrows, the sizes of their nostrils, and the qualities of their skins. If it is necessary, do it. Otherwise, don’t. This rule is suspended if you’re Honoré de Balzac, who used physical description to indicate internal qualities. If you can write like Balzac, do so.
- As Edward Wallis Hoch said, “There is so much good in the worst of us, And so much bad in the best of us, That it hardly behooves any of us. To talk about the rest of us.” It does behoove us, as writers, to remember this, and to put some bad in our good guys and some good in our bad guys.
- Almost nobody thinks he’s the bad guy. A student once told me he knew everything about his book except why the bad guy was bad. I told him what I just told you. It was one of those wonderful moments for which teachers live: the light went on in his head, and his own story opened up for him.
- The people in your story are not all in the same story. That’s what “point of view character” means. You’re following the story line from the perspective of one main character, but each of the other characters has a different story line. All of your characters’ story lines converge with or run parallel to or collide with your main character’s, but they aren’t identical. Remembering that keeps things interesting. And, to return to point #1, it helps keep the characters distinct.
Well, there you have a random ten things I can think of about characterization. Do you have some to add?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Three characters walk into a bar.