In my creative writing classes, I generally break fiction into four basic components: Character, Setting, Plot, and Theme. I spend more time on characterization than the others, honestly, since I think that no matter what genre you’re writing, the reader cares primarily about the characters. You can be a tremendous worldbuilder and create an incredibly intricate background for the novel; you can have a blazing plot with startling shifts and turns and unexpected directions (all properly foreshadowed, of course); you can lay a deep, meaningful foundational theme underneath everything to support the entire structure. That’s all fine, but if the characters are wooden and one-dimensional, it’s also all for naught. Yet if the characters are complex, real, and compelling, then the reader will forgive small defects in setting, plot, and theme… because it’s the characters we care about.
It’s the characters we remember when we close a book. We identify and bond with the characters, we cry and laugh with them, we fear for them, we root for (or sometimes against) them as they make their way through the events of the book.
Characters can make or break us as writers.
So learning how to create great characters is s skill we must all continue to hone, no matter where we are in our careers. Here are seven strategies that I outline for my creative writing students. I make absolutely no claim that this is the only way to go about characterization. It is simply one way among many. If you like any of this, feel free to apply it in your own work.
Strategy 1: Physical Details
Personally, I find the physical description of a character to be perhaps the least important aspect of characterization. Yes, it’s good to give the reader some idea of what the character looks like, but a catalogue description of facial features, height, weight, hair color, skin color, and clothing doesn’t actually help in filling out the character for the reader. Here’s a description: “Scott had blue eyes and dirty blond hair, was six feet tall, and weighed about 185 pounds.” All that may be accurate, but it’s also rather general and bland, and it tells us nothing about Scott as a character.
Here’s an exercise for you. Think of a novel where you came away with a very clear picture of the character in your head. Now go back and read the actual descriptions of that character in the text. My bet is that you’ll find that your mental image contains several details that aren’t at all in the author’s actual text: instead, you’ve provided those details from your own imagination.
That’s fine, too. It’s why you’ll see the film of a novel you’ve read and either agree or disagree violently with the casting of the actors, because those actors do or don’t match the image in your head. The thing is, each and every reader will take away a different vision of the characters in your written work, and each and every reader’s interpretation is exactly correct — for them.
Our job as writers is to provide the reader with a few specific “telling details” — small, precise, and important details that provide not just a physical description, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a psychological description of the character.
Here’s an example, from the novel Shame by Salman Rushdie. “Mr. Eduardo Rodriques was as slim and sharp as his enormous collection of pencils…”
Isn’t that terrific? I can see Eduardo Rodrigues from that single sentence, as clearly as if he were standing here in front of me… and I have the added bonus of having some idea of his psychological construction — what kind of person has an enormous collection of pencils? One sentence, with a bare but very pertinent detail that brings the character to sudden life.
That’s what we should all be striving to accomplish.
“Show, don’t Tell.” Everyone tends to hear that in writing classes. Here’s a bit of “Tell”:
Fred was out of shape and overweight.
Now a “show” of the same statement: Fred had to pause at the second landing, out of breath already. His calf muscles ached from the exertion of walking the two flights of stairs and he leaned against the knob of the railing, panting. The waist of his jeans, which had fit perfectly when he bought them six months ago, dug painfully under the balcony of his stomach. The button strained at the hole that confined it, the fly gaping to expose the zipper.
In both cases, we’re trying to give the reader some idea of Fred as a character. Here you see the obvious difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ — showing takes significantly more space than telling. In showing, though, we have the opportunity to pull out wonderful facts about Fred and his personality that we might otherwise skip. There’s more emotion, more visceral description. We know Fred better as a person.
Yet while my preference decidedly leans toward the show version, the tell is more efficient. There are times when you want to tell, not show. That ‘show’ paragraph, in the midst of an action scene, would slow things down considerably and hurt the narrative flow. The ‘tell’ gives the reader the necessary information without any fuss.
I would tell you that when you have the opportunity to display a character’s personality by seeing that person “in movement” and doing something, take that opportunity rather than just giving the reader exposition that simply states the facts. But… just as you want to vary the rhythm of your prose, you also want to vary the rhythm of your characterization.
It shouldn’t be “Show, don’t Tell.” It should be “Show, but sometimes Tell.”
There you have two of the seven strategies. I’ll continue with this post next Friday. In the meantime, let me know what you think of these two strategies in the comments.
Stephen Leigh, who also writes under the name S.L. Farrell, is a Cincinnati author who has published twenty-seven novels and many short stories, including several for the WILD CARDS series, edited by George RR Martin. His newest novel is IMMORTAL MUSE (by Stephen Leigh), DAW Books, March 2014. PW Weekly gave it a starred review, saying “Leigh seamlessly inserts his two immortals into history, playing with actual people and events to deliver beautifully-rendered glimpses of different eras. Leigh strikes the perfect balance between past and present, real and imagined.”
FB (Stephen Leigh): https://www.facebook.com/stephen.leigh
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