5 Things I Know About Characterization #amwriting

5characterizationThe writing group I attend weekly is going to start having a before-meeting meeting to discuss craft, in addition to the meeting, where we critique each other’s work. So I’m thinking about craft.

This week, I’m thinking about characterization. Here are some of those thoughts which, I hasten to interject, are only true IN MOST CASES:

  1. Characters had lives before the story you’re telling began and will have lives after the story you’re telling is over and have lives outside of the story you’re telling. ALL the characters have lives outside the story you’re telling, even the ones who only walk by on the street. You don’t necessarily have to know the details of the minor ones, but you do need to be aware of the fact to the point that you don’t write sock puppets, who do what you need them to do for no reason besides your need for them to do it.
  2. Characters don’t live in a social vacuum. They have friends, family, former friends, past or current teachers, classmates, playfellows, rivals, workmates, in-laws, ex-laws, out-laws, etc. This is true even if none of those people are in this particular story. Did you ever see CASTAWAY? That huge, mostly non-dialog section was affected by: the woman he left behind, the woman he had yet to meet, and a multitude of customers he would never personally interact with.
  3. Stories don’t take place in a physical vacuum. Every story takes place in a particular time in a particular place. Although every character will notice or be affected by different parts of the environment, anybody in a third century Macedonian village would experience the physical and social world differently than anybody in a thirtieth century space ship. Those differences would impact the characters, their interactions, their dialog, and the plot. There would be different landscapes, different colors, sounds, smells, tastes, clothes, attitudes, rituals, spirituality.
  4. Because they’re different people, different characters have different ways of talking. The more their circumstances are the same, the closer their dialog will be, but they won’t be identical throughout a conversation, especially if you make body language a part of the dialog.
  5. You don’t need to stick every detail you know about your characters or your setting into the foreground of the writing. If a character picks up laundry at the cleaners, and that doesn’t have anything to do with the story or the character, you don’t need to detail it. You don’t need to record every, “Hi.” “Hi.” “How ya doing?” “Fine. How’re you?” “I’m fine. How about that game last night?” “I missed it. Who won?” “The Cubs.” “No kidding?” “I’m serious!” –Okay, maybe starting from “How about that game last night?”, but not every scrap of chit-chat. Just the good stuff.

I probably know more that that, but I try to keep my posts relatively short, since I write so freakin’ many of them.

What do you think about these? What would you add as important things to know?

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Eavesdrop on a conversation, taking down every word from the first. Mark where (if) the conversation got interesting. That’s where you would start the conversation if you were writing it in a story. If it never got interesting, you wouldn’t put it in a story at all.


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I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “5 Things I Know About Characterization #amwriting

  1. Joey

    November 7, 2016 at 8:02am

    I agree, you know more than that, but this is a good basic guideline. I don’t like it when all the characters sound the same. And when I say I don’t like it, I mean, if it’s too much the same, I’ll put the book down.

    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 7, 2016 at 8:35am

      Even if they all have the same general speech patterns, they think differently, come from different inner spaces, and so would say different things or would be doing different business as they speak.

  2. Bonnie

    November 7, 2016 at 10:19am

    A good list. 🙂 I would add (though it is less likely to be left out in the actual story) What does the character look like, how does he/she feel about it, and how does he/she think others see him/her. For some characters this, of course, will be less important than for others. For a few it will be the PRIME reason for most of their actions.

    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 7, 2016 at 10:46am

      Good one! And also, as you say, a great way to differentiate characters.

  3. Dan Antion

    November 7, 2016 at 1:19pm

    Very good post. I think this is why I’ll probably never try writing fiction.

    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 7, 2016 at 4:42pm

      But but but … YOU DO! If we were having a beer, I would tell you that writing is just taking notes on what your imaginary friends do and say.

  4. Andrea Gilbey

    November 7, 2016 at 1:34pm

    Another good thing to remember is that characters who live together or are close to each other know each other, so don’t make them explain their relationship to each other in dialogue just for the listening reader; find a way that they show their relationship and write that. As you always say, “show, don’t tell.” 🙂

    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 7, 2016 at 4:44pm

      Oh, Lord, yes — the Soap Opera dialog error. “As you know, Bob, your wife, Carol, and my wife, Jean, grew up together in Cleveland.”

  5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    November 7, 2016 at 3:40pm

    Characters are the fun part of writing!

    A heck of a lot of work, but then I get to ride in someone’s head who is doing things I wish I could do (or I wouldn’t have made them up), and I can go back and tweak both characters and events until they somehow feel right.

    Maybe, in the end, it’s just me talking to myself.

    But it feels good to let out pieces of me I normally keep under deep cover – and see what the logical consequences of behaving that way would be.

    Otherwise, you spend your life trying to follow some path – and wondering about the rest of the possibilities.

    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 7, 2016 at 4:48pm

      Well, it’s obvious what kind of stories I write, because I read the sentence as “see what the legal consequences of behaving that way would be.” Your writing is perfect to illustrate Bonnie’s point about characters’ self-images and concern or lack of concern about how they come across. You do that beautifully and meaningfully!

  6. Andrea Gilbey

    November 7, 2016 at 5:53pm

    Soaps, and what I call “forsoothly” writing. Historical stuff. “Greetings, cousin, how fares your father, my uncle?” I’m sure there was a medieval equivalent of ” Hello mate, ‘ow ya doin’?”@Marian Allen

    • Author

      Marian Allen

      November 8, 2016 at 8:25am

      LOL! “Speaking forsoothly” is what we used to call it in Society for Creative Anacrhonism. Thanks for the blast from the past. 😉

  7. Jane

    November 8, 2016 at 10:57am

    Remember the awful, terrible disappointment when the longed-for book from the viewpoint of Harry Dresden’s vampire brother made him sound EXACTLY like Harry? Real bummer!

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