Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, creating compelling characters is vital to keeping readers engaged in your story. There are many components to crafting these characters that are challenging. How do you introduce a character into the story? Which details should you include about a character? How do you take your characters beyond the obvious and bland?
Natasa Lekic, the founder of NY Book Editors, offers a few tips to help both fiction and non-fiction authors write character introductions that delight and surprise their readers. These tips have been based on the work of James Wood author of How Fiction Works and Saul Stein, author of Stein On Writing.
Five Major Ways To Characterize
If you’ve been struggling with writing a character it may be useful to look at these five strategies for characterization to see if there’s anything you can improve upon.
- Physical Attributes
- Psychological attributes
If your character is a secondary character, these strategies equally apply to them. It’s even more challenging to have a character who’s rarely on the page spring to life quickly and effectively for the reader.
It’s the classic tip: ‘show don’t tell’. You’ve probably heard it before, but it doesn’t mean it’s not valid. What does it mean? As Stein suggests, try making the characterization visual whenever possible.
Natasa gives a great example of this by considering the characterization that Guy De Maupassant employs in Le Reine Hortense.
“He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”
Describing the man’s action of going through the doorway first, in one sentence, immediately gives the reader a sense of who this man is.
Exaggeration can be used in conjunction with this tool of characterization, as well as the others we will explore. It is an effective and common way of characterizing.
To illustrate this point Natasa uses an episode of Seinfeld to highlight a secondary character’s introduction. Watch this clip and think about how you would describe her before scrolling below.
You probably thought, as most of us do: She’s a tall blonde.
Compare that with: When she entered the room, George realized her feet would hang over his bed.
We grasp that she’s tall without resorting to a cliche, and the resulting description is more memorable. That’s what can happen when you visualize your character moving around in the world. We’re characterizing through the physical action of the woman lying in a bed with her feet hanging over it.
Another benefit of using the bed is that we immediately see her in context to George’s desire.
Minor characters usually help characterize the major ones in a story.
Here’s one of Stein’s examples using the same physical attribute. Instead of:
“Frank is so tall.“
“Frank is so tall, he entered the room as if he expected the lintel to hit him, conveying the image of a man with a perpetually stiff neck.“
In this way, the characters’ actions of entering a room gives us insight into who they are. Though we are describing a physical attribute, we are doing so through their actions and movement in the world. This provides us insight beyond merely their physical appearance.
Imagine a character has been waiting a long time for someone to arrive. We can easily imagine the kind of dialogue that the character may use when their friend eventually arrives. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” is the obvious route, but is it the most captivating for readers? Probably not.
Instead, consider how your dialogue can express who your character is and what they’re feeling. Don’t just convey information, but give your reader a sense of who the person is through their words.
For example, consider the dialogue Rita Mae Brown gives her character in High Hearts:
“Girl, my fingernails could grow an inch just waiting for you.”
This gives us insight into the character, as opposed to “I’ve been waiting for you a long time,”. From the High Hearts example, we immediately learn something about the sassiness of the character.
Think of the most basic way you would describe your character. Visualize them. What does their appearance suggest about who they are? How does it contribute to the story overall, and their interactions with other characters?
Audience and readers respond to aspects of a character’s physical appearance where it contributes overall to what we know of them and their place within the story. When describing your characters physically, you have an opportunity to reveal more about them than merely their physical appearance.
You do not necessarily have to be specific with how you describe the physical attributes of your characters, and if done well this can leave your readers’ mind free to engage in a level of imagination.
For an example of this, consider how Virginia Woolf utilizes the physical description of Charles Tamsey in her novel To The Lighthouse.
“[Mrs. Ramsay] looked at him. He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows.”
The physical description of ‘humps and hollows’, although not specific, is evocative and provides us an image of Charles Tamsey, as well as how he is perceived by those around him. We can visualize what this character looks like, though we haven’t been told exactly where those ‘humps and hollows’ are on his physical body.
The clothing of a character can tell readers a wealth of information about who they are, their experiences and goals. It can bring to life a character that otherwise may just not be working. The details we use should relate to the character and the story.
Consider how two prominent authors, John Grisham and David Morrell both use their characters’ clothing to tell readers something important about the characters.
“McDeere unbuttoned his coat and crossed his legs. He was now a seasoned veteran in the search for employment, and he knew they wanted him. He relaxed. With three job offers from the most prestigious firms in the country, he did not need this interview, this firm. He could afford to be a little overconfident now. He was there out of curiosity. And he longed for warmer weather.” - John Grisham, The Firm
Using these two little details, unbuttoning his coat and crossing his legs, John Grisham conveys to his readers McDeere’s confidence, relaxation, and a desire for a warmer climate.
Let’s consider another example:
“Ryan… took only five minutes to dress, making sure his gloves were in his shapeless jacket. ...Ryan, whose parents had immigrated from Ireland when he was a child, had tried hard to replace his Irish accent with a London one. His clothes were equally anonymous. Accustomed to working undercover, he wore a newspaperboy’s cap that was pulled down so that his red hair wouldn’t be noticed.” - David Morrell, Murder as a Fine Art
See how much clothing can say about a character? On one hand, we have McDeere unbuttoning and displaying his air of confidence, and on the other, we have the buttoned-up Ryan whose very clothing demonstrates his desire to be hidden.
Your characterizations, and therefore clothing choices, should align with what you’re trying to show about a character.
This can be a lot of fun to write, and when done well can create intriguing characters that excite and engage readers. When writing psychological attributes of your characters, you can subvert the expectations of readers by providing unexpected reactions from characters to situations or people within your story.
Consider the usual response to financial ruin. James Wood talks about the film L’Eclisse by director Antonioni, in which a man loses a large sum of money in the stock exchange. The audience and another character follow him as he goes to a pub, and then a cafe without touching his drinks. We see him writing on a paper.
The usual responses we expect to see from a man in these circumstances may include anger or despair. Perhaps he’s calculating his remaining finances. This is what we imagine him doing on the paper. As he moves away, he leaves the paper behind and the second character picks it up. She, and the audience, discover that the man has been drawing flowers.
Through this example, we see how powerful it is for an audience, including readers, to be surprised by a character. In real life, people are complex, as are the reactions they may demonstrate to various events. By subverting the expectations readers may have of a character’s responses and behaviors you mirror the complex reality which we live in.
Your reader should have a misplaced sense of certainty. They think they know how your character will respond or what will happen next. Try not to give them what they expect. Effective characters mislead us with their actions or behaviors again and again.
By subverting expectations, your characters are given more depth. To do this, you need to think beyond what the usual responses are. Try and think a few steps ahead of what the usual response is, to what response would best reveal who your character is.
Characterization is vital to creating characters that capture the imagination of your readers. It keeps them engaged with your stories. Consider how you’re using action, dialogue, physical attributes, clothing and psychological attributes within your own manuscript to help your readers get to know the characters.
If you’re still struggling with writing a character, consider taking Stein’s advice and visualize them.
How do they move through a room? How do they speak? What are they wearing? You may find considering these questions is what brings your character to life at last.
Practice writing some characterization for characters in your own book, or find a photo of a person you don’t know and write a few sentences using these tools of characterization.
If you’d like to read more about what James Wood and Saul Stein have to say about characterization and more, check out their books How Fiction Works and Stein on Writing.
If you feel comfortable, feel free to share some of your practice characterization in the comments below or tell us what your favorite characterization tool is!