Characterization is one aspect of writing that many authors struggle with at one time or another. So where do you start? Let’s say you’ve determined who your character is, what he or she looks like, now take it a step further — find a way to make the character as real for the reader as the person standing next to you.
Description gives the reader information about a character’s physical appearance such as height, eye/hair color, and disposition.
Mary, the slender brunette on the third seat of the bus, looked distraught.
A better way to describe a Mary is through her actions and dialogue. Both of these methods will give the reader a more vivid image of the Mary than description alone. Add description to action and dialogue and the character has the potential to jump off the page.
Mary raised a slender, shaky finger to her eyes. Tears moistened the strand of dark hair that fell onto her face. She leaned her head against the window and stared at nothing. The world was passing her by as quickly as the ramshackle buildings that blurred past her – no one knew her pain, no one cared.
“You okay back there?” The driver asked.
She didn’t look up or answer. What was the point? In less than an hour’s time, it would all be over.
Now we can see a minute into Mary’s state of mind. We see her crying, something is weighing heavily on her mind, she feels alone, and whatever is going through her thoughts will be resolved one way or another in less than an hour. Is this enough to make the reader care and turn the page? A story may have a killer plot, but the manner in which a character is portrayed and developed will have a greater impact on the reader’s reaction to the story than anything else. If a character is weak, will anyone care if he drives his car off the cliff?
How often have we read reviews that indicated the reader couldn’t “fall in love” with the character? Is it necessary to fall in love with Mary’s character to sympathize with her? The word “love” might be a bit strong in this sense. Perhaps a better word is “connect” because I do want to care what happens to her, why it happened, and hopefully see her resolve her problems in a positive, uplifting manner.
As a writer, my goal is to draw the reader in and get him or her to connect emotionally with the character(s) and the story. The choice then is between describing a character or allowing the reader to see, hear, and feel the character’s persona.
Every writer has read or heard someone say, “show” don’t “tell.” That same principle applies to characterization. When we “tell” the reader what a character looks or acts like, we involve the reader intellectually (they have to think about what is being communicated). When we “show,” we involve the reader emotionally by giving him or her something to relate to from a personal experience. An image or feeling from that experience will immediately flash across the reader’s mind.
In other words, the character has to hit a nerve with the reader on a very basic level –touch the reader emotionally so the reader can connect with them and that usually includes letting the reader see the character’s flaws. What’s more important though is that the reader has to be able to see the character grow and overcomes those problems.
Maybe what that reviewer, editor or agent means by needing to “fall in love with the character” is the desire to see a small part of him- or herself in a particular character. First they have to know the character thoroughly and next be able to identify with him or her. When the reader is able to identify with a character’s plight, problem, weaknesses, strengths, etc., he or she will sympathize with character and will want to follow them through the rest of the book.
Description, action, and dialogue are effective methods used to create characterization. How a writer uses and combines them is a matter of style largely determined by the needs of the story.
© Marta Stephens 2008, all rights reserved
About the author: Marta Stephens is a native of Argentina who has made Indiana her home since the age of four. This mild-manner lady turned to crime with the publication of the first in her Sam Harper Crime Mystery series, SILENCED CRY (2007) which went on to receive honorable mention at the 2008 New York Book Festival and top ten in the 2007 Preditors & Editors Reader Poll. The second book in the Harper series, THE DEVIL CAN WAIT, will be released by BeWrite Books (UK) on November 3, 2008.
Stephens holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism/Public Relations from Ball State University (IN) where she is employed in human resources. She is a member of Sisters in Crime International, Sisters in Crime Speed City Indiana Chapter, and the Midwest Writer’s Workshop.
Stephens believes learning is a life-long adventure. Aside from her writing, she is trained in graphic and web design. She co-designed the award-winning book cover of her debut novel, SILENCED CRY with friend Scott Parkison (IN), created the book trailer, and designed/administers her website, www.martastephens-author.com, her personal blog, http://mstephens-musings.blogspot.com, and the authors’ blog, MURDER BY 4 http://murderby4.blogspot.com.
Stephens lives with her husband, daughter (22), and son (20). She enjoys oil paintings, gardening, the family’s pet Boston Bulls and mini Daschunds, and shared moments with family and friends.