Norman Mailer, when speaking of characterization, said:
“It’s when they become almost as complex as one’s own personality that the fine excitement begins. Because then they are not really characters any longer–they’re like beings, which is a distinction I like to make. A character is someone you can grasp as a whole, you can have a clear idea of him, but a being is someone whose nature keeps shifting.”
In a critique of one of my early unpublished novels, someone pointed out that only one character was somewhat believable. It was the antagonist. The bad guy. I’ve since found we usually do a decent job on the antagonist because we hate him so much. It is the protagonist that’s most sketchily drawn.
I think the reason is because we know our good guy. He/she is us, our other self, Protag. Because we see this person in the mirror every morning, and know this person’s most intimate thoughts, we fail to develop the character so others know him. Yet if we fail with the protagonist, we fail at everything. We have to develop this character so that our readers not only know him, but share his experiences as well. They need to sniffle when the snot runs from her nose; catch the stitch in their chest when he coughs up phlegm. “I feel your pain,” should resonate with our readers.
So, how do we do that?
I know of some writers who do it by continually reworking the story until they can see their characters so well they can bring them to life on paper. Other writers base their characters on someone they know, either from real life or from the movies, even to the point of placing a picture on or below their monitor to keep them focused as they go through the story.
What I do, folks, is write character profiles. This works for me. What works best for you is . . . what works for you. This may sound like a copout, but it’s why writing is such a lonely journey. There are no formulas. At least in good writing. While we can point out some sign posts, no one can actually lead you along the path.
BUT, having said that, if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere with what you’ve been doing, why not try another way? I can’t understand people who doggedly refuse to take the time to try something new in their writing. Well, yes I can, because that’s exactly what I did for so many years, and why it took so long to have my first novel published. I want to emphasize that I never really grasped the concept of good characterization until I started doing character profiles.
Writing character profiles can be a tedious process for it’s a bit like writing another story, and most people regard this as a waste of time when they could be at real-writing. But characterization is real writing. It is not an adjunct. It is not option. We must get it right or we will continue to waste our effort on plotting and rewriting.
How much we develop each character depends on the type of story. Science fiction novels generally have less developed characters than a literary novel with detective novels falling somewhere in between, but all novels will benefit from strongly drawn characters.
It also depends on the importance of the character. A taxi driver who appears one time without any lines is hardly a blip on the reader’s mind, but if you bring him back you might give him one quirk, like a squint, so the reader will recognize him the second time.
However, a person we journey with from page one to page four hundred is–forgive me–another story. Remember back in plot we talked about an epiphany? The protagonist has a sudden revelation such as: what love is; a deep felt faith experience; or even just who killed whom. Or is it who killed who? Either way, if we want our readers to share in the experience, to taste it, live it, feel it, we must join them to our character over the course of story. If we can do that, our readers will be glad they journeyed with us, and look forward to trekking along when we head out again.
Which brings us to one of the main rules of characterization. Our characters should develop over the course of the story so that at the end we know them more intimately than at the beginning. We’ll look at how we do that in BookMarc #15.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated October 4, 2014