Write Your Novel: Characterization

Now that you’ve gotten the building blocks of your story, you need people to put in there – the characters.

Point of View

Point of view (POV) is defined as the person who is telling the story and from where s/he will tell the story. Ideally, it should be one person – two at the most – protagonist (hero or heroine) and antagonist (villain). Occasionally, a second hero’s or heroine’s point of view is also used, especially in romance novels. If you do decide to use two or three people, it is imperative that you keep their POV’s separate. This is done by having each POV confined to either a chapter or scene or, at the very least, a lengthy paragraph. The point of view should not skip from sentence to sentence. That’s called head hopping and, like watching a never-ending tennis match, becomes tedious and gives you a headache.

The first person point of view is told by “I”. This gets the reader immediately into the character’s head, but it limits you in perspective because you can only tell what’s going on from his or her perspective. Do you have some vital information that only the bad guy or the best friend knows? It doesn’t matter. Unless the hero finds it out for himself, you can’t use it. Nothing can happen that “I” doesn’t know. It limits who the reader gets to know, but it does allow the reader to get to know the main character really well. Note: the main character must be a strong individual in order to carry the entire story.

Third person POV is a story told by he/she. It allows you to be in the minds of multiple people and to see what’s happening in other areas away from the main character. This is the most common point of view used in today’s writing. It limits how well you get to know any one character in particular but allows you to know a little bit about a lot of things.

The omniscient point of view was common in books of the 19th century. In this one, the narrator of the book can directly address the reader. You’ll find it common in books by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens when they address you, “dear reader”. It is not used in modern writing.

Characters

When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout.

As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.

Is that the way your characters look?  Do your heroine’s all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips?  Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes?  What about your heroes?  Are they all tall, dark and handsome?

I once judged a writing contest in which every one of the seven manuscripts I read had a heroine who was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. If this sounds like your characters, then you need to get out your writing needle and thread. It’s time to do some creating.

Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of Asian descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. People of African descent aren’t just “black” or of basketball player size. The colors run the entire spectrum from palest coffee to deepest ebony and some of them are actually a bit on the short side. And not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel.

Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.

The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare?  Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.

Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.

Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with brpwm eyes?  Or even a (gasp) redhead?  In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?

So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism?  Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk?  Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone?  Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle?  How do they carry their packages?  How do they move in relationship to other people?  Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way?  Does anybody stand out in the crowd?  Why?

Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they?  What do they do?  Why are they acting the way they are?  What are their other physical attributes?  Do these add or detract from their personality?  Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.

For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.

Another thing you want to remember, especially when creating your main characters, is no wimps allowed. Save wimps for the secondaries – unless there is a compelling reason for your main character to be one. In this case, he or she may start out the story as a wimp, but has to end up the story as a stronger person (character growth).

When creating a villain, you need to evoke sympathy. The best villains have some reason for what they do and it has to resonate with the reader. Granted, this doesn’t happen all the time (the emperor in Star Wars has no redeeming value whatsoever), but it’s better when he does (Darth Vader).

Secondary characters should not take over a scene unless there’s a very good reason. They are there to support the main characters or add color to the story, not to be the main reason for the story. If they start to take over, then maybe you’re telling the story from the wrong point of view.

Questions to answer on characterization:

  1. In each scene, how much time did you spend describing a new character? Is his or her importance worth the amount of time?
  2. Have you introduced the entire cast of characters on the first page? Don’t character dump – introduce multiple characters gradually. This allows you to introduce more information about each character.
  3. Do you have too many characters? Can you combine several secondary characters into a single character without losing the story?
  4. Have you told us about the character’s emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  5. Which point of view are you using? Have you been consistent throughout the story?
  6. Do your characters seem like real people? Do they have both good points and bad? Even bad guys have good points and good guys have flaws.
  7. What do you like about your main character? Does s/he have traits that you like? What about ones you dislike? The more enjoyable you make him or her, the more time your reader will want to spend on them.
  8. Does your main character change or grow through the course of the book? If not, you may have to go back and check on the premise of your story.
  9. Is your antagonist (a.k.a. villain or bad guy/girl) morally bad and not just a bully or brat? Those with bad morals are more interesting and have more to lose/gain.
  10. Does your villain have charisma or something that attracts or charms other people? (Power, wealth, charm, fame, etc.)
  11. Have you humanized your villain? Readers will identify with him/her if s/he has some good qualities.
  12. Have you been consistent in how you refer to your characters?
  13. Are the characters plunged into rising conflicts?
  14. Have you told us about the characters’ emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  15. Is each character a unique individual?
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