Writing Characterization Is Key in Storytelling
Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where a character seemed boring or uninteresting? Think about it. Did that character do anything on their own or was he or she dragged, begrudgingly, through the story by either the other characters or by the plot events? Did that character learn anything or were they the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning? Reading or watching a simple character is going to bring down your story. Today I want to discuss how to write characterization, making memorable and interesting characters who appear to be real.
People want to read stories about people.
Stories, books, movies, comics, TV shows, serials, radio shows, etc. are all about people. Your futuristic sci-fi technology, the shocking reveal, a wondrous magical sword, beautiful dresses, enthralling action, or dread are all side elements in your story. People want to read stories about people. Writing true to life and relatable characters is the best way to get your readers to care about them. If you have readers invested in the outcome of a character, then they are going to feel ripped off if that character doesn’t do anything or change. Here are my tips to write a complex character.
Write a Backstory
Your character needs a backstory. The backstory is what happened to the character before the book started. I have written about this several times, including how to use the Snowflake Method. Backstories should be written out whether you are a plotter or a pantser, especially if you’re a pantser. How long or how much detail the backstory has is going to depend on how close that character is to the central story. I write more for my central characters than I do for the barista who works at the favorite coffee shop my main character frequents every couple of chapters. Every one of my P.O.V. characters has at least an entire page of backstory or more before I start writing. Everything from notes about his or her childhood, relationships with parents, friends growing up, previous professions, education, favorite things, criminal history (if any), habits, physical appearance, etc.
The more you know about your character’s backstory the better you are going to keep her or his role in the story consistent, but you are also going to be able to give them a believable story arc. Writing a backstory for your characters will help you keep them consistent and true to life.
Write a Profile
You can now write a profile for your character once you have their backstory written down. The profile contains all of the information of how the character will act and look once the story begins. The profile is how they are in the first chapter they make an appearance and how they will change as the novel progresses. You will have the beginnings of a character arc with background and profile information before you begin chapter one. Your character profile page should list things like: physical appearance, age, gender, clothing (at least during their first chapter), where they live, profession, friends, pets, quirks, distinguishing features, mannerisms, hobbies, etc. Having everything written down beforehand will keep your description concise and focused, whether plotting or pantsing.
This profile should also outline relationships with other people and how they interact. The most interesting characters or elements of your story may not be the main character. Real people have varying degrees of intimacy with the different people in their lives. Something that could be interesting to read about would be how your main character acts around two different people, then how that character acts when both of the other characters are there. Your reader will pick up on the juxtaposition and enjoy the reading experience because of it.
When I’m writing out character profiles and backstory, I like to create whole pages for each character underneath my character folder. At the top of the profile page, I always put a picture of an actor or actress who I could imagine playing this character if there were a film adaptation. This helps me stay consistent with the character’s appearance and personality. I now have an idea of what the character will look like and act based on the current profile and their backstory. Now it’s time to figure out how they will act throughout the rest of the book.
Give Your Characters Goals
Your characters need goals. It’s great you’ve made it this far, giving your character a rich backstory and detailed profile with a color coordinated outfit, but if they don’t want anything then there is no reason for them to take action. If there is no reason for them to take action, then they are going to be boring, uninteresting, or unbelievable. Your characters need to do something. They need to want something. This could be as simple as vengeance for stealing their girlfriend in high school or saving his or her family–and thus, humanity–from volcanos and aliens at the same time. They have to be driven and motivated. A character who lays in bed all day thinking about how awesome their frat days were is not going to sell many books.
You’re in luck, giving characters a goal is a lot simpler if you have a backstory and profile. The character’s goal is often the idea you had for the story to begin with. When you’re writing your character profile with backstory, I want you to write down his or her goals. Have it all on one page. You need to be able to see all three parts. The beginning (back story), middle (profile) and end (goal) make up your character arc.
Goals are not just for main characters. Every character in your book must be there for a reason and feel real. Too many times I’ve read or edited a book where the side characters were just caricatures or stand-ins feeding the main character lines or giving the reader information they should have gotten from prose. The point of secondary characters is not to be fodder for your horror novel or other party-goers, they are there to challenge the main character and build them up.
One of the reasons I love George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is because of the secondary characters. Everyone wants something, whether it’s to be king or queen, to seek vengeance against someone, to be invisible, to read, to no longer be a bastard, honor, or their father’s love. All of his characters wants something, even if they don’t have chapters devoted to them. Many times, a primary character will die and a strong secondary character can take their place because they were so well written with their own desires.
With your three elements of character, you can make sure that you have a believable and consistent character arc. Your characters will be full, vivid, and complex and you’ll have your readers begging for more scenes with them. Once you have written out a backstory, profile, and goals the character becomes their own living, breathing person within your story and not just an empty shell that delivers dialogue and sometimes drives the story forward.
Internal and External Conflicts
Your characters need to have both internal and external conflicts. This is will make the character feel real and believable to the reader.
This is the conflict felt within the character. A character’s internal conflict is something that only they and the reader knows. This could me a fear of rejection or a sense of inadequacy or abandonment. Internal conflicts may be harder to write for external conflicts; I know they are for me. This tension is more abstract and subjective but could be the most relatable for the reader.
This the conflict felt by outside forces. A character’s external conflict is just as important. These are the more concrete things that stand in the way of your characters. They can stem from being a dwarf, language barriers, a dragon, or vast distances to travel. It is the external conflict that heightens the internal.
Both internal and external conflicts must stand in the way of your character’s goals. Let’s say your character wants to be the best piano player in the world and play for the Chicago Symphony, but she’s from a small town and her parents pressure her to go into the family restaurant business. There are internal and external conflicts at work. She has to deal with the lack of support for her dream and lack of confidence in her abilities–internal. She then has to deal with the physical barrier of getting to a music school or auditioning for the orchestra without assistance from her family. The character has multiple internal and external conflicts keeping her from the same goal. The internal and external do not have to the same thing.
Things to Avoid When Writing Characterization
Generic Characters and Archetypes
Generic archetypes are boring, especially if it’s obvious the character is only there to play a specific role and then is killed off or disappears. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the wise old mentor figure, but if they are only there for a chapter and then disappear without a trace, then we have a problem. You may not see it as an author, but the reader will tell this was a cheap, throw-away character. Every character should be fresh and worthy of their own book.
Character Change without Explanation
Remember, your character should look, feel, and act like a real person. They also need to have a real reason to change. If the girl’s parents from the earlier example change their minds and support their daughter’s of trying out for the orchestra, the reader needs to know why. Do they have a fight in the restaurant where the daughter finally expresses her contempt for being a line cook? Do they have a near death experience? There needs to be a reason for the change. Always be thinking about how you can change your characters’ minds so that the reader is not taken out of the story.
Too Strict on Characterization
Things change during the writing process. Depending on how long it takes you to write a book, things may change a lot. That’s good. I’m a plotter and I always deviate from my outline by at least the halfway point through a book. However, a danger would be to not let yourself deviate from your plans if the story required it. I would never suggest someone follow their plot with absolute fervor. The story or character you started with will not always be the one you end up with halfway through or at the end.
This turns off a lot of pantsers from ever trying to plot. They think that since they took the time to write out an outline, they have to follow it exactly. This is not true. When you’re plotting or writing out a character profile, give the character room to change. Also, give yourself permission to deviate from the plan. You know your characters better than anyone. Give them the freedom to live and grow on the page. Your characterization page or story outline are merely suggestions, not unbendable rules.
A backstory and characterization profile are meant to help you write real, believable characters. This works despite if you are plotting or pansting. In a previous Wednesday Writer’s Workshop, I argued that if you’re a panster, then backstory and characterization are even more important than for plotters. Still, never be afraid to deviate from the plan. If your characters break away from their characterization sheets, then you may be on the right track since real people change over time. Your readers will thanks you for the experience of believable characters and come back for more of your books.
Thank you for reading this edition of Wednesday Writer’s Workshop. Do you use internal and external conflict in your characterizations? Please follow us on Facebook or Twitter to keep the conversation going. Make sure to come back Friday for Friday Fiction Breakdown to learn from the characterization master, George R.R. Martin.
Until then, keep writing.