The Skill List Project: Characterization Tools

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, we started on characterization, listing a number of sources that could help you think about building engaging characters. This time, I’m going to look at some tools of characterization. By that, I mean techniques with which you can show/tell a reader who your characters are and why they’re worth reading about.

(A quick reminder from previous posts: there are many reasons why readers may find a character engaging. The character may be believable: “I know people exactly like her!” The character may be striking: “That MacGyver is always so ingenious!” The character may be endearing (the Doctor), kickass (Buffy Summers), funny (Death in Discworld), etc., etc. Characters may be engaging even if they lack qualities which are traditionally deemed desirable; Hannibal Lecter is neither sympathetic nor believable, but he still grabs and keeps your attention.)

Viewpoint

As always, viewpoint is your foremost tool for connecting with the reader. By describing events from a particular character’s point of view, you immerse your readers in that character’s psyche. What does the character pay attention to? What does he/she ignore? How does the character react to what’s happening? The answers to these questions communicate the character’s background and personality far more clearly than any explicit statement from the author.

For example, you could write a direct description like this:

Maisie’s heart was in the right place, but often her head wasn’t.

Or you could show the reader a relevant situation from Maisie’s viewpoint:

Her grandfather always needed help down the stairs…and really, she was happy to lend a hand, except that the old man didn’t like her seeing how feeble he was, and Maisie, unlike Joan, could never persuade him to take her arm (really, Joan just bullied him, and for some reason he put up with it, but Maisie couldn’t be like Joan and didn’t want to be like Joan) so she always ended up walking down uncomfortably beside him while he snapped at her, “For God’s sake, stop hovering!”

The second version gives a tangible illustration of who Maisie is. We see that she wants to be considerate, but doesn’t have a knack for it. We feel her awkwardness…but from the long run-on sentence, we get much more: a little neurosis, some jealousy of Joan, a sense of feeling useless. Note that Maisie doesn’t show any resentment toward her grandfather for being prickly; she takes all the blame on herself.

Readers may not be conscious of every little thing that the “grandfather” sentence implies about Maisie, but the details all come together to form a picture of the character. Inevitably, a reader’s mental image will go far beyond what the text actually says. Quite likely, you’ve started to see Maisie in your mind: her age, her appearance, her social class, and so on. The sentence said nothing about those things, but our brains are connection-making machines; they automatically link new input to old memories, so you’re probably thinking of Maisie in terms of people you already know. That gives her a tangibility that isn’t actually in the writing.

Dialogue

As mentioned in a previous posting, our perception of people is strongly influenced by how they talk. Word choice, sentence complexity, what a speaker cares about and pays attention to…it all reveals the person’s character. In a way, dialogue is almost the same as viewpoint—what a person says reflects what the person thinks. (Of course, speakers can lie or suppress their real opinions, but so can viewpoint characters. I love unreliable narrators.)

As a result, even though a passage of text usually has a single viewpoint character, dialogue lets you present multiple viewpoints (and multiple characterization opportunities) in a form that’s easy for readers to understand. We’re all accustomed to conversations where each participant expresses his or her personal viewpoint—that’s how conversation works. It’s how we often learn about people’s personalities in real life, and how we do it when reading fiction too.

(Since I’m thinking about it at this moment, I’ll mention an interesting effect that I’ve seen in several books: characters who always speak carefully/flatly and who never serve as the viewpoint character. I’m thinking in particular of Tavore Paran in Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Because we never get inside Tavore’s viewpoint and because her speech is always sparing and controlled, the reader essentially doesn’t know who she is. She’s a mystery: good, bad, competent, incompetent, we don’t know. It’s a subtle trick for making a character into a cipher, and I intend to steal it if an opportunity ever arises.)

Actions

Your strongest characterization tool is what the character does—actions speak louder than words. First impressions are particularly important; what characters are doing when they first appear in a story will determine how we think of them forever after.

Consider, for example, Ebenezer Scrooge. Even though, we all know that A Christmas Carol is the story of how Scrooge becomes “nice”, we never think of nice Scrooge when we hear the name. We think of bad Scrooge because that’s our first impression from the book…and because bad Scrooge did so many memorably nasty actions. The same applies to someone like Darth Vader: we remember him strangling someone in his very first scene, and we (pointedly) ignore years of subsequent attempts to make him sympathetic.

The importance of first impressions has been formula-ized by Blake Snyder in his screenwriting manual Save the Cat. Snyder contends that all heroes/heroines need a “save the cat” moment early in their stories. This is a point where the character does something generous, like saving a cat by getting it down from a tree. Such an action wins the audience’s approval and makes them think the character has a good heart. Later on, the character will likely demonstrate personality flaws, since stories are often about characters facing their flaws and overcoming them. But if our first glimpse of a character says, “This is basically a decent human being,” then we’ll be on the character’s side.

As with all writing formulas, take this one with a grain of salt—after all, A Christmas Carol has thrived for almost 170 years, despite Scrooge being a bastard in the early pages of the story. On the other hand, don’t dismiss the formula completely. The reader’s first encounter with a character is important; make sure the character’s actions strongly establish the character in the reader’s mind.

I won’t cite examples of books that do this successfully, since almost every book that gets published does it tolerably well—books that flub the introduction of the protagonist almost always get rejected (or rewritten until the intro does work).

Good introductions don’t have to be flashy—many a mystery story starts with a client walking into a detective’s office and the two people just talking—but even such a plain introduction has to give a clear initial picture of who the significant characters are and why they’re interesting enough to deserve the reader’s attention. Make sure the character’s actions are telling, even if they’re subtle.

I strongly recommend that you analyze a few of your favorite books to see exactly what the major characters do in their first appearances. What impressions do their actions make in your mind? What do their actions tell you about the characters’ personalities? How does the author make you want to see more of what these characters do?

Make sure you check out different kinds of books—that way you’ll see more possibilities. For example, many an action-adventure novel opens with the protagonist in the middle of a fight; that’s a tried-and-true approach, but you should also examine more low-key openings so you see how other options can work.

Closing

I’ve blathered on enough for this month, but there’s still more to say about making engaging characters. Next time, I’ll look at the key issue of character motivation. In the meantime, let’s see some comments about your favorite tools for conveying character.

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There are 3 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Frodo doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot in his first scenes.

    Then, The Lord of the Rings does have a certain slow start.

  2. 2. James Alan Gardner

    The beginning of The Lord of the Rings is certainly slower than we see in most modern novels. I would say, however, that what we’re getting is characterization of the Shire and of hobbits in general. We’re seeing them embody a placid village life; no individual stands out much (except Bilbo) precisely because nobody has much identity apart from their membership in hobbit society. They only become strong individuals by going through the troubles later on. —Jim

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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