by Ben Frost
My current pet peeve is poorly developed characters. That's what this is about.
First things first, of course. I make no claim to be a master of fiction writing. However, I do read plenty. And in reading a couple of review requests, the primary thing that I feel needs to be worked on is characters, and as a reader, I’ve got some advice that I think most writers can appreciate. After all, I’m no different- I struggle with characters and characterization every day. I’m going to do a couple of essays on characterization and this is a revision of the first one. I’m going to lay out the ground rules, as I see them, for basic characterization. Now, every rule is made to be broken, but I’m a firm believer in the need to learn and follow a rule before you can understand how to break the rule without the rule breaking you.
I’m not going to provide all the reasons why I define something the way I do, because it would take up too much space. And I understand you probably have different definitions of your own, and I don’t expect to change them. These definitions are the vocabulary I use throughout the essay so that there isn’t any confusion.
A character is any entity that is given persona in any piece of writing.
As a writer you can give a lamp thoughts, motivation, passion- you can make it a character. Let us not forget the lesson taught by Magritte’s The Treachery of Images; Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe. In writing nonfiction, about yourself, about someone else who actually exist, or otherwise, their existence is separate from the writing. In the work, they become a character. Or you become a character. So if you are writing anything involving yourself, memoirs, or otherwise, remember: I can’t see you but through your work, how you describe yourself. The process is no different than if it were a fiction and I were trying to get a grasp on a fictional character. But, if you aren’t giving it any personality at all, then it isn’t a character.
RULE #1: Your reader, unless you are very lucky, is human. Humans relate best to other humans.
Period. When a human is relating to something that isn’t a human, we tend to emphasize and even insert human characteristics so that we can cope with the inability to understand it better. For example, I have a ferret. She’s a smart little creature, and really friendly. But “Smart” and “friendly” are distinctly human aspects. I’ve got no idea what’s going on in her head or how it works, but when I give her human characteristics I can understand it better. To understand this a little better, look at the inverse. Would you call a person “smart” just because he was capable of escaping his room, or understand a few rudimentary commands? Would you call him smart even though he had accidents sometimes, and went to the bathroom on your carpet? Would you call him “friendly” simply because he did not ever bite you, and his primary concern seemed to be smelling you? Of course not! Another great example of this is the Captain and his ship. He’ll refer to his ship with gender, he’ll give it a name and speak about it as if it were a close friend; and while to him the ship is a close friend, it is not as if the ship can possibly feel the same way about him. And he’ll call the ocean “she”, and refer to bad weather as “angry” waters; but you get the point, I hope.
RULE #2: A reader must, on some level, empathize or sympathize with at least one of your characters.
This is the only way you can get your reader to get emotionally involved with the story, and if they can’t get emotionally involved (In a positive way, anyways, I’m discounting the emotional involvement of hating a piece, although even that is sometimes the objective.) they won’t enjoy the story. It won’t move them, it won’t make them think, and they won’t walk away from it with anything. The reason that this is the only way you can get readers emotionally involved in the story is rule #1; humans relate to other humans. So, to get a human to relate to your story, you have to have a human in the story.
The process of making one of your characters more human is called Characterization.
This is what you are doing with your characters throughout the story. Merely establishing them as characters makes them more human because we intrinsically expect characters to be human in some way.
Personification is the act of giving an inhuman object personality, that is, human characteristics. Technically characterization is personification, because characters aren’t actually human- but, insofar as writing fiction goes, personification is the act of characterizing a character that is not defined as human. This carries some slightly different rules and aspects, and I’ll be writing a piece later covering mostly personification, but remember that what i’m teaching for characterization applies to personification.
RULE #3: Humans think, feel, and act for reasons.
This is the first and most important thing I have to say about characterization: if your character is not doing something for a reason (even a hidden one, but mystery and ambiguity is a whole other essay) then there’s not any way I’m going to relate. If I can’t understand the reason, then I won’t be able to understand the character nor relate.
Motivation is the reason characters think, feel, or act.
RULE #4: A character with motivation is immediately more realistic and effective than one without.
While it has its limits, the more motivation, the better. Now that we are into rules more directly applicable to writing, lets look at two examples:
(A) Bill was tired. He slowly rose out of his antique mahogany chair, an early 1920’s rocker, and ambled down the stairs. He opened up the fridge door, and poured himself a glass of milk. A casual taste indicated that the milk had turned; he drank it, fitfully, anyways.
(B) Ted had spent a long day working at his construction job and was currently sitting on an old chair his grandfather had originally owned. Thirsty, he walked downstairs and poured himself a glass of milk. The first sip told him that the milk was sour. He was used to this, though, and drank it anyways. His system was strong enough to handle it, and if he could afford fresh milk, well, it would already be in his fridge.
There’s a lot of information about Bill. We know what kind of chair Bill has, how he walked down the stairs. What kind of taste he took before we learn how he actually drank the milk. But what do we learn about Bill? Only that he’s willing to drink a glass of sour milk, and that he owns antique furniture. As a reader, do you really care that I’m not going to write any more of his story? But lets take a look at Ted.
There’s a lot less about what Ted is doing and how he was doing it than there was with Bill, and the words about what he’s doing are much less descriptive. But suddenly Ted seems that much more realistic, because we know so much more about him. Instead of being disgusted by his determination to drink the sour milk, we feel bad about his situation. We know WHY he feels the way he does and so instead of wanting to know why he does what he does, we want to know more about him.
RULE #5: All humans are unique, and your character should be too.
Even archetypal characters need to be unique. Motivation is one of the most important things that show how your character is unique, and the next one up on the list is specifics. Tiny details. You don’t need a lot of them, just the ones that show your character as unique. I’m in no way unique if I smoke cigarettes, but if I tell you that I always open up a pack of cigarettes with one hand by pushing the two corners below the lid together, I do seem much more unique. It narrows me down into a smaller group of people, and if I gave you a few other things that narrowed me down into small groups of people It’d be clear that I was unlike everybody else. People see themselves as unique, so they like to see unique people.
This is by no means a complete guide to characterization. This is just what I feel are the most rudimentary things, and what I look for most when I write something. I’ve got a few more planned:
The Heroes Journey, Plot and Conflict
Dialogue and Relationships Between Characters
Intrigue, Mystery, and Ambiguity: Why and Why Not
Voice and Characters
Nonhumans as characters: Personification
Characters and Metaphor