“Characterisation or characterization is the process of conveying information about characters in narrative or dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. Characters may be presented by means of description, through their actions, speech, or thoughts.” – Wikipedia (link at the bottom of this post)
On rare occasion, a character will develop completely within my imagination—everything about them from looks, personality, and morals to attitudes and actions—all manufactured in my mind. They just appear out of the blue, sometimes with a smile and a nod, other times by talking, telling me their tale. I call that monologuing, and it’s hysterical, but not at 3AM when I have to be awake at a respectable hour.
But, I find more often than not that reality truly is stranger than fiction and people in my reality or real life become the basis for my characters. Better watch out if you actually know me. =)
Sometimes, I combine two or three people into one character, pulling only those traits I need to make the character whole, providing I intend to go that in depth with them. Sometimes, all I need is just how the person looks. My friend Grant will deny this and tell you that it’s him in The Vampyre Prophecy. In all honesty, I just really liked his name—Grantlund. Cool name, huh?
Other times, the trait is a tic the person has or their thought processes:
- Did he really just jerk his head to the side three times while talking to me? This actually happened to me. I ignored it, but I remembered it. It’s a good character tic.
- Is the man a man-whore, sleeping with anything and everything that crosses his path, and why does he do that? How many of you know this man?
- Does the woman have a propensity to jump from one relationship to another without taking time for herself, perhaps because she’s afraid of being alone? How many of you know this woman?
- Does this person know when to stop pushing buttons, even when joking, or does common sense fail them? Um, yeah, these people drive me insane.
- Is this person bi-polar, or do they have borderline personality disorder? There’s a vast difference between the two and they should be researched if you’re going to use either one. I, unfortunately, can pull either of these from experiences in reality.
- Is this person always so damn bubbly? I can’t stand bubbly people most of the time. If there’s a high-pitched voice attached to it, I have to walk away.
- What about the melancholy one? What’s their deal? Never happy? I mean, NEVER?
- Does the man have an amazing ability to calm people down with mere words, regardless of his size?
- Is the woman a drama queen? Oh, come on, you ALL know at least ONE of these. I’ve known more than a few, so let’s discuss this one.
Sometimes, the drama queen is coupled with the previously mentioned bi-polar or BPD. Have you ever witnessed a bi-polar switch? Very creepy and totally throws you for a loop. But in fiction, it’s, well, drama. We need drama in fiction, and because people tend to believe fiction is reality after hearing stories and watching television and movies, drama becomes reality because they feel the need to emulate fiction. I mean, let’s face it, reality is actually quite mundane compared to fiction, and this is why we have stories.
So all those people you know with a flair for the dramatic and exaggerate the hell out of life? Good writing fodder for your characters. It doesn’t matter if they believe you’re using them or not. There’s this wonderful little disclaimer at the front of your book that states otherwise.
With exception to the epic fantasy I’m working on, nearly everything I’ve written to date has a character based on someone I know or have met briefly. Eventually, some of the characters grow and become something greater than what I’ve started with, but there’s always been that base in reality.
Nemy, from my book Nemesis, is a strong character who sticks to her beliefs and values regardless of her family upbringing. She essentially took over the story, which was exactly what I wanted her to do because it’s written in first person point-of-view (POV), present tense. I kept her in line a bit, but it’s all her voice so I had to let her go some. Here’s a snippet of the first three paragraphs to show you a bit of characterization:
Tall, dark, and damn scary walks into The Fox Den. I wish it were a joke. He steps right up to my bar and leans forward, resting his thick arms on the hard black laminate surface. I haven’t wiped that down yet, so I hope it’s sticky because he leers at me until I make my way down to him. There are plenty of nearly naked women around the central Phoenix gentleman’s club, so just for the leer, I take my sweet time. This only makes him stare harder until I get there, his piercing eyes boring into me, which has my skin crawling. My natural stubbornness to demanding men takes a hit. Time to get him away from my bar as quickly as possible.
“What can I do for you?” I note the rugged lines of his face with a scar down the right side, the short dark crew cut riddled with grey, and the muscles that look like they’re about to rip apart the seams of his short-sleeved shirt. Normally, these attributes wouldn’t bother me—rougher-looking men have worked for my dear old dad. But there’s something in his eyes that makes me want to take a step back, which of course, I don’t.
“Is Clancy ’round?” His voice is damn near Barry White deep and scarier with the Irish brogue laced through it. Eyes check me out thoroughly, running up and down my arms as he takes in my tattoos, and of course, lingering on my chest for far too long.
With these first paragraphs, you get a clear idea of the type of person Nemy is. At least, that’s my hope. You also get an idea of tall, dark, and scary through her voice and her telling of his actions. That’s the original photo, by the way, the one that every time I look at it, I see Nemy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the owner for copyright info.
Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson is a great example of what can be done with characterization. Everything we know about Mercy we learn through her actions, speech and thoughts (especially since the books are in first person POV). She’s a strong character, just like Nemy. THIS is why I adore her.
To the contrary, I’ll attempt to give you an example of characterization failure from one of my own stories because I’m not going to bash an author publicly. I feel that’s extremely unprofessional. Hell, let’s even pull Grant from TVP.
Grantlund Conor MacNessa, named after the very first of his line, King Conchobar, was in a state of obscurity. His mind was overrun by the darkness, the blackness being so substantial that he had difficulty returning to the light. It would occur from time to time and when he would awaken, he could not recall what had transpired.
He thought perhaps that he was unconscious during this lapse in time, yet he always returned home satisfied. His yearning, his hunger had been mollified… for the time being. This extraordinarily deep level of his subconscious was subversive. He knows not what he is like in this state, but it frightens him to think of it, to speak its very nature.
It happens in the blink of an eye.
He cannot tell his Master.
He cannot tell anyone.
He has become something else now…
Okay, first let’s just ignore the passive voice and the formal speech and the adverbs, and focus on the characterization. Who in the hell is this guy, aside from an heir to a noble line? We don’t know, do we? This is his introduction in the book that has since been removed. It’s horrible. I failed on so many levels with this book that I can’t even go into them, but not only does this example give you a good idea of where characterization failed, it also shows you the inexperience of a writer because I wrote that book in 1999, which is why it’s in full rewrite. Can we tell he’s a vampire? Maybe. The words “hunger” and “Master” might give you that impression.
Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, in my opinion, is a fairly decent example of characterization failure. The story is flat, the character bored me (I don’t even recall much about her), and I couldn’t even finish the book because I didn’t care enough about the character’s predicament to move forward. Sorry Stephen, but I loved The Eye of the Dragon and The Stand! And to give you another good example, there’s a little snippet of character in The Stand, where a woman is sitting on her porch with a gun as all hell is breaking loose in the beginning. The bullets she has for the gun are moldy or tarnished. We don’t see her die exactly, but we know the cause of her death has to do with her lack of gun knowledge and not cleaning everything properly before using the weapon. The gun misfires. I read this book once, over 20 years ago, and I still remember the character that had a very small part in the book. THAT is good writing and good characterization.
I rarely read a book more than once. The stories just stay with me, especially if they’re written well, and hooking me as a reader is a whole other post.
Usually, I write by the seat of my pants rather than outline a story. I can only outline research papers. Stories change too much when I attempt to outline them. The problem with pantsing is that I don’t really get to know the character well enough in the beginning of the book to develop them (like Grantlund), and I have to go back and fix that. My only excuse here is that the real writing is during revisions.
With the epic fantasy, I’ll have to build the world before I can write the story. I’ve written about three parts to it, but I’ve realized that the Dragonfire piece I wrote about two years ago is not the beginning of the book, nor is Aidan the main character (MC) of the story. He’s one of a few main characters, yes, but not the MC. And guess what? My MC is a bit shy. Go figure. I have to delve into the world and interact with other characters in order to learn more about him. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Yes. But that is the mind and world of a writer.
I hope I’ve given you some decent examples of characterization and why it’s important.
And just remember . . . I’ll put someone in a book or story to kill them off just for fun, unless their character is too flat and I have too much to fix. Never piss off a writer. They have a penchant for eviscerating you in fiction, and they wield that power with great clarity and wit.
“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” –Bilbo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, birthday speech.
For more on Characterization, take a look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Characterisation