Warning: Long Post Ahead
Today's post is basically a smorgasbord of the things I've learned about characterization from different classes, books, and experiences throughout the years.
For my new project (WIP2), I began with character sketches. First Draft in 30 Days gave me a worksheet to go from, but I cherry picked and added a few categories of my own. So far, for every WIP2 character, I know all, or most of, the following things:
- Full name (and nickname if applicable)
- Birth date and place
- Role in the novel (e.g. relation to MC)
- Eye/hair color/description (careful of olive skin and almond-shaped eyes... How many times have you read those descriptions??)
- I flipped through magazines and tore out images of people (celebs, advertisement models, headshots of people randomly interviewed on the street, etc) to match with what I envisioned my characters looking like. I didn't keep them whole every time either... I used eyes from one pic, hair from another--you get my drift!
- I also did this when creating the setting sketches... SO helpful! (School, houses, bedrooms, dining rooms...)
- Any scars or other distinguishing marks
- Build & style of dress
- One note here is to avoid using clichéd mannerisms too often (biting lips, rolling eyes, etc)...
- Also--make note of the phrases or words that certain characters repeat
- Personality traits: (likes/dislikes/typical mood/hobbies/allergies/anything you can think of should be added) Also:
- How does this character view themself? Do they have any contradictions (e.g. a mother who's a slob but expects her children to keep neat rooms...)
- How does this character react to bad news? How do they function under pressure?
- How does this character react to perceived threats (physical or otherwise)
- Background (This is one of my favorite parts. I can't tell you how much it sucked to cut almost the entire first two chapters of SHATTERED when I began editing. But I had to do it because I'd started off with all backstory. It was important for me to know, but not for readers at the moment. This time I can start my new project already knowing the things I need to about my characters, so it will be easier to layer that info into the story when it's necessary.)
- Internal Conflicts (This is my absolute favorite thing so far. Each character has MORE. THAN. ONE. internal conflict.)
- What are this character's biggest fears? secrets? desires?
- External Conflicts (Who/what will get in the way of what this character wants?) I was worried about being able to flush this section out before starting the plot outline, but man did my characters ever come to life and tell me a lot more than I was expecting this early on!
Speaking of bad guys, I don't think they should be cruel all the way to the bone--in most cases, anyway. You can add so much depth (ah, my favorite word these days) if you give the villains a redeeming trait or two... Maybe they take care of their feeble grandmother. Or maybe it's as small as caring for a pet fish. Or maybe they find peace each morning in a cup of tea with honey... But give them SOMETHING and their connection to the story will seem much more believable. Also, make sure you understand WHY your villain is bad. What happened to them in life to make them the way they are today?
A lot of beginning writers (myself included if you read the above part about cutting the first two chapters of SHATTERED) make the mistake of throwing everything about their characters into the beginning of a story. While, yes, you should know your characters inside and out. Your readers? Not so much. At first anyway. Instead, unveil your characters at a more gradual pace so that each reader has a chance to form their own ideas about them. This, in turn, will create a much deeper sense of who your characters are than you ever could push through with a summary.
We're all driven by our own personal experiences, and authentic characterization follows suit. But our characters' past experiences should be revealed to readers on a "need to know" timeline... Not in one big infodump.
Finally, characterization is a BIG part of the whole "show don't tell" principle.
- Don't tell a reader that your character is funny, allow it to come out through humorous bits of dialogue.
- Don't tell a reader that the character has a short fuse, show it in the way she slams her locker shut at the slightest teasing from her best friend.
- Don't tell a reader that your character loves his best friend, show them through his actions... In the tender way he brushes a stray strand of hair from her forehead... In the way his heart turns into a box of Mexican jumping beans when she's near. (Okay, that's cheesy, I admit it, but give me credit--this is a LONG post and I'm getting a little loopy here at the end!)
What areas of characterization are the most important to you? Did I leave anything out?