Friday, January 8, 2010


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
  • Mannerisms
    • 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!
Whether or not you know how things will end up when you first start writing, your main characters should have changed in some way by the end of the book. Growth is really important. In fact--I think it's what separates the good guys from the bad guys. Villains remain villains because when faced with adversity, they don't change or adapt... They don't grow.

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!)
And, most of the time, you don't really need to explain characters' motives for the types of things mentioned above. Let readers draw their own assumptions based on the behaviors of the characters. Again, it will allow them to create a much deeper connection.

What areas of characterization are the most important to you? Did I leave anything out?

♥ me


  1. I love the idea of tearing out magazine pictures for characters! I could get carried away with collaging my characters and settings and...well, everything! Hope you're enjoying the process...I think creating the characters is even more fun than creating the plot :)

  2. I really like that idea, too! Why didn't I ever think of using pictures to help me put a character's appearance together? Also, you've pegged me on my weak spot: I don't plan. And I need to plan, because it will cut down SO MUCH on the amount of editing and reworking I have to do after the fact. Great ideas, Sara! Thanks!

  3. Lol--this is all so foreign to me. Well, not the parts about knowing your characters (you're spot on about the show don't tell, and giving villains redeeming qualities) but the worksheet part of it. I've never done that before! (okay I did it when I was a very little kid, but I haven't done it seriously :-P) Haha just thinking about filling that out makes my head spin. Of course, then you've got my characters in my head crossing their arms going "Excuse me... do you not know everything about me already? Why are you wasting your time on this! Get to chapter 13 already!!!"

    Actually, you've just given me an idea. I think I may use that little questionnaire on SECONDARY characters!

  4. I think conflict is the most important thing (though all of it is important). I don't use a lot of physical description though. I might mention hair color, but that's about it.

    Awesome list Sara. I actually need to go back and flesh out some of the characters in my current WIP and this will be very helpful.

  5. Okay. I had to print this one so I could study it later and steal all of your ideas. This is packed with great stuff. :-)

  6. I have never not once even considered caring about what my characters do or how they feel about X. At least, I hadn't considered it before beginning to plot a novel. Now my MC's occupation is rather important to me. So are the occupations and habits of the other characters establishing themselves in my brain.

    I might be back to read this post again in a few weeks, when I've started the darn thing. I'll probably need a refresher by then. :)

  7. I did a search on the internet and printed out my pictures, and I have them stapled to their corresponding character sketch. I did most of the things you did, too, and it really helped me when I started writing. Got the first half of my WIP done with virtually no problems. One other thing I did with the mc is to write one sentence telling how I want her to grow over the course of the book.

    Great series of posts, Sara! Keep them coming:)

  8. Thanks for taking the time to write this out! It's always great to have reminders of what to think about while writing/revising. The one that stood out to me most was mannerisms. I believe I've kept mine from cliche territory, but they're still not as unique as I'd like. Nina tugs on her hair, which is fun to work in where appropriate.

    One of the mannerisms I've ALWAYS remembered is from Liz Ortecho in the Roswell High series by Melinda Metz. Liz can only think with her hair up/back, so whenever she's upset, she puts it in a ponytail, and if she's anxious and doesn't have a rubberband, she twists it up off her face and lets it fall again. I could always picture it perfectly!

  9. This outline was perfect for where I am heading in my writing this week. I've had a general idea of my characters, mostly appearance and some backstory, but nothing too in depth. Thanks for posting this! I'll be following it closely as I tackle my characterization brainstorming sessions over the next few days.

  10. Oooh this is such a good post. I love filling these things out although stomestimes its hard to figure it out all in advance for me, sometimes it has to come organically from writing the character into situations and seeing what happens, but I love this.

  11. I rarely put it on paper, but I do a lot of this kind of stuff in my head. My characters tend to pop in fully grown, so it's just a matter of observing them in action :)

    Good advice!

  12. AH! I do the same thing! But you know what they say, "Great minds" and all...
    Love the idea of the mannerisms. I don't have one on my character spreadsheet--and you know I'd have this in spreadsheet format ;)
    Love this post Sara! I'm glad you're having fun planning out your new project. That's one of the best parts of writing. Enjoy!

  13. We're big on the 25 things approach. We always sit down and write 25 random facts about each character. It really helps!

  14. I imagine my character's favourite book...song...painting...these things (along with photographs I find just about anywhere) create my first character collage. Things grow from there. It didn't occur to me that others had a similar practice. I enjoyed this read, thanks for sharing. Look forward to future visits.

  15. Good post! I always do a detailed description of the character, including their internal drivers, and usually draw them as well. I'm not a great artist, but it's just for me, and helps me imagine other details besides their appearance. I also try to engage all senses -- that my character has lemon-scented hair from her shampoo, or a deep, lazy voice.

  16. I love the 25 random things about a character technique. And I used to do magazine ads but I never seemed to have the right mags for the right characters, so I've been googling and snatching pics off photobucket and other photo sites. Then I make a collage on a word doc, send the whole thing to Kinko's to print out (cheaper than using up all the ink in my puny printer) and hang it in front of me. Visuals give me inspiration!

  17. Okay, first I wanted to let you know I mentioned your contest a few posts ago at http://writingrollercoasters.blogspot.com/2010/01/uber-random-thoughts-on-writing-and.html but I'm so glad I came over to tell you about that today, because I LOVE all your characterization ideas! This post is getting a bookmark, and I definitely can't think of anything you left out :)

  18. Some amazing tips here. I actually saw a young man at a store the other day who was perfect for one of my characters. I swear if I didn't think I would come off as a creepy stalker type woman I totally would have taken his picture. Since then I've thought about just searching so I'd have an actual, tangible "picture" rather than just the one in my head.

  19. Couple things I do in addition to what you have:
    One sentence story line
    Story Question (why should the reader care)
    Fears (including Worst Fear)
    Current Problems
    External Goals
    Internal Goals

    Some of the stuff you mention is just details...always go for the Big Picture when it comes to characters. What do they care about most? What are they willing to die for? Is hair color really that important? What's holding them back from solving all their problems on Page One of the book. Add the details in future drafts.
    IOW I would totally reverse the order of your list ;)

  20. Sorry I'm just getting around to this post--I've been trying to get some editing done. Awesome suggestions Sara! Especially the point about adding something "nice" to a villain and knowing why they're bad. I mean, even Voldemort had his fear of dying, which always made me feel a little bad for him. Plus when you saw how screwed up his childhood was in Half Blood Prince you could empathize a tiny, tiny bit. I've *tried* to do that with my villains, but you'll have to let me know once you meet them.

    And now...back to editing.

  21. Most illuminating post.

    You truly are a little gem :)

  22. Ah, good stuff, m'dear. Excellent post and work a bookmark, for sure. I do believe I'll be coming back to this one.


Yay! I love when you have things to add :)