I have been actively avoiding writing a blog post on characterization.
This avoidance stems from a few reasons:
1) What do I have to say that hasn’t already been said (and better), and
2) What do I know about it, really?, and
3) I have never considered myself particularly strong at characterization.
Until today. Well, a few weekends ago.
I am writing THE post on characterization today because, while attending the Austin SCBWI conference, I realized a couple of things:
1) The exact reason I am weak at constructing characters, and
2) A great method (perhaps fool-proof?) to REALLY construct a character.
I feel like this revelation must be shared, despite having doubts that it is anything new or better than what already exists. It is new and practical for me, and I’ll write this down so at least I come back to it if I ever forget.
If that hasn’t sold you on reading further, nothing I can offer will.
BEHOLD: THE WAY OF CREATING CHARACTERS
- Collect some personality traits.Find five (5) traits that can co-exist in an interesting way.
“Why five?” you might ask. Five traits can create a complex, more realistic character, and is still a manageable amount to describe and remember.
(If you are creating a character-driven story, this is the first step you will do in the entire writing process, but if you are a plot-driven person, you will need to consider what 5 traits your character will need in order to create problems and find solutions for themselves.)
Make sure that you have at least two (2) personality traits that oppose each other in some way. Not necessarily in direct opposition, but traits that might contradict each other or compromise each other when placed in certain situations.
A character with heart and bravery won’t hesitate to save the day. But if that character is also paired with common intelligence, they might not always know how to save the day. Or even better, they might blunder into sensitive situations and cause more havoc than the antagonist could ever manage alone.
(Really, Harry Potter? You’ve only just learned you’re a wizard and you think you know how to take down a troll?)
Also make sure that you’ve included AT LEAST one (1) flaw. Who wants to read about somebody perfect? And if that person IS perfect, what kind of story can you create. Perfect people tend to not have problems in life.
- Give your characters a soul-searing DESIRE.
More than any other method of characterization, your characters’ deepest wants and needs will bring your character to life for the reader, and give the reader someone to cheer for or against.
So, how do you do it?
Ask you characters this question: What is one thing you don’t want to live without, and cannot for another day live without?Then ask them: What are you willing to sacrifice to get this desire?
Now, it’s okay if this desire changes over the course of your story. After all, if the desire is changing, your character is changing. And dynamic, changing characters are the bomb.
And it’s okay if you have an unreliable character that claims to want one thing, but really want something else. As long as you, the author, know what the core desire for your character is, you will be better able to write your character so that he or she jumps off the page and into your readers’ hearts and minds.
The first two steps are the absolute minimum you could do and still end up with any sort of complex character. This 3rd step is all about adding flair, and making it easier to write them.
- Find a picture of your character.
Ever notice that when authors “show, don’t tell,” they use a sentence like:
Her small hands curled around the pen. Her knuckles lost almost all the
color the rest of her had.
“Excuse me,” she bit out.
This sentence gives us details about the character’s physical looks: short, possibly Latino or African American. Writing a sentence like this that shows the reader what your character is like on the inside is a whole lot easier when you know what they are like on the outside. When you know their physical appearance.
The easiest way I’ve found to keep a stable mental picture of my character is to find a photograph or illustration of what they would like.
Which actor or actress would I cast in the role of my character? I find a picture of them, change the color of the eyes or hair to match the mental image in my head, and—Viola! —I have a physical copy I can refer to every time I need to describe my character’s emotions and actions.
(I’m trying to ship these loveys in my current WIP.
It’s much easier to imagine the tender touches, and looks of exasperation when I can so easily visualize them.)
Finally, make sure that your character’s physical characteristics are consistent with their character traits and desire(s). A girl who looks and dresses like Kim Kardashian is not likely to be your shy, demure wall flower.
What have you found to be an indispensable practice when it comes to creating characters?