Writing Fiction: The Keys to Characterization

Serious music students practice their scales, learning the notes by rote before they ever play a piece of music. They play the same piece over and over, receiving correction from a teacher until playing at a satisfactory level. Likewise, a writer who uses a spelling, grammar, and plagiarism checking tool to review a piece can learn from the corrections, improving her finished product. The writer who studies her craft can learn to play symphonies, while the writer who shuns formal learning and relies solely on instinct may find herself stuck playing “Chopsticks.”

What is Characterization?

Talent and learning must come together to produce great writing. Like spelling and grammar, characterization is a skill that can be learned. Characterization is, simply defined, the process by which the author reveals a character to the reader.

Details like mannerisms, dialogue, and physical appearance all contribute to the building of the character in the reader’s mind. The reader gets to know the characters through the process of characterization.

Characters, like people, reveal themselves through various means. Dialogue, appearance, speech, and the effect a person has on those who already know him all play a part in forming our assumptions of a character. Characterization can be either direct or indirect, and both types fall into one of several categories.

Direct & Indirect Characterization

Direct characterization should be used sparingly. Description of a character’s appearance, mannerism, personality, or habits is direct characterization. A common ploy, especially among new or inexperienced authors, is to have the character studying himself or herself in a mirror. The technique, when the writer uses the opportunity to simply describe the physical characteristics, results in the impression of a narcissistic character obsessed with his or her appearance, unless the physical description is secondary to the character’s thoughts and feelings about his or her appearance.

 

In Piers Anthony’s book Ogre, Ogre the main character, Tandy, examines herself in a mirror:

She was nineteen years old, but she looked like a child in her nightie and lady-slippers, her brown tresses mussed from constant squirming, her blue eyes peering out worriedly. She wished she looked more like her mother- but of course no human person could match the pretty faces and fantastic figures of nymphs.

From this short paragraph, the reader learns that Tandy is childlike, with brown hair and blue eyes, but far more of Tandy’s character and current state of mind is revealed than her physical statistics. The reader sees a troubled young woman, the child of a mythological creature who is slightly insecure in her own emerging womanhood.

Characterization with Dialogue

Actions may speak louder than words, but in writing, speech is the primary tool for revealing a character to the reader. Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of conveying not only information that moves the story forward, but details about the speaker.

Grammar, word choice, dialect, accent, tone, and delivery all come together to paint an indelible picture in the reader’s mind. Dialogue may be spoken (external) or written (internal). A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Well-crafted dialogue will paint a picture in the reader’s mind, revealing clues about age, education, social status, attitude, worldview, and bent, that would take pages of pure description to create.

A Character’s Effect on Others

 

The effect a character has on others is another subtle yet important tool. The character who commands an air of respect is likely the hero, while the one who inspires sneers may be the villain or the underdog. Lemony Snicket, in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, used the children’s first impression of Count Olaf to strongly influence the reader’s view of the villain:

They wondered … whether, for the rest of their lives, they would always feel as though Count Olaf were watching them even when he wasn’t nearby.

The Effects of a Character’s Name

What’s in a name? A character’s name can be an indicator of their basic personality. Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape both have memorable and sinister-sounding names that fit their personalities. Bilbo Baggins sounds like a respectable sort of individual from a long line of stolid ancestors. Huckleberry Finn is the ideal handle for the delinquent child of a drunken vagabond. By employing a combination of direct and indirect characterization techniques, the writer can create characters that come to life on the page.

[box]Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.[/box]

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I Do (and Read) What I Want

So, remember how in my last post I was all, “I’ve got ideas for this blog” and “contributors” and “news forthcoming.”

Yeeeah, no.

After further reflection, I’ve decided the last thing I want to do right now is give myself another writing project. The day job and my freelancing work provide the perfect number of deadlines for the time being.

Besides, I’m enjoying coming home from work with energy left to exercise my brain, so I’ve been letting myself indulge in books. Since moving to Champaign, I’ve read:

That might not seem like a lot for the hardcore book nerds out there, but eight books since September trumps my January through August average by, like, I dunno…a lot. I attribute my newfound energy and desire to read again to two things: going back to Central Time and having access to natural daylight at the new day job.

Anyway, of the eight titles listed, I’d have to say that In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin was my favorite. Despite the horrible title, it was a fascinating read. It’s by Erik Larson, the guy who wrote Devil in the White City, and it follows the lives of the reluctant American ambassador to Germany and his family at the time Hitler was coming to power

A fair number of people on Goodreads complained about how much attention Larson gave to the ambassador’s daughter’s scandalous love life. I think those people are idiots. First of all, her diary provided a first-person account of a historically significant period. Second of all, that a member of the Nazi party tried to set her up with Hitler, that she fell in love with a guy in the Russian military, that she slept with whomever she pleased in 19-freaking-33, that her escapades complicated life for her dad—those things are damn relevant to a story about the ambassador and his family.

My one caution: Because Larson quotes primary sources where he can, the prose can get a little clunky. This one reads closer to the non-fiction it is, where Devil in the White City reads a little more novel-like. Prepare yourself for grammatical structures that are a little more complicated than “See Dick run.”

 

Book Review: Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang


My Goodreads review of Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang:

I’ve never seen her show, but after reading this book I think I understand why it’s on E!

Last weekend I got my Champaign Public Library card and promptly installed the app for checking out e-books. Eager to get started and see how things worked, I borrowed my first library e-book, Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang.

Now, before you lay into me about how stupid that decision was, a few lame excuses:

  1. I did not recognize Chelsea Handler’s name
  2. Although I’d heard of the show Chelsea Lately somehow, somewhere before, I’d never seen it and was therefore unable to make the connection between Handler and E! until after she mentioned it in her book
  3. I’m a sucker for the words “irreverent humor” in a book review or description
  4. Many first-choice titles already had holds placed on them, and I wanted to devour a book, dammit

Just how much of Handler’s memoir is shtick and how much is factual is hard for me to determine. She seems at times to be genuinely atrocious (for example, joking—or maybe not—about euthanizing her father) until she dedicates an entire self-admiring chapter to the ridiculous lies she gets people to believe.

I suppose as readers we’re supposed to have some philosophical, internal debate about whether or not the whole book is a lie. Or about whether Chelsea Handler, the person, is a lie. But that doesn’t work for me. I know people like this in real life—people who get off on making others wonder if they’re genuine or if they’re not—and they’re tedious, off-putting jerkwads.

Ugh. This is why I don’t watch the programming on E! It turns me into Judgy McJudgerson.

Anyway, the book’s saving grace? It’s short, conversational, and well-edited. So if you’re like me and you get some sense of satisfaction from merely finishing a book, you can mark this sucker “read” in a couple of hours.

What I recommend instead of this book: Here Comes Trouble
What I’m reading now: In the Garden of Beasts

 

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