Characterization is often a challenge for writers. Leonard Seet, today’s How to be an Author guest poster, is a writer focused on the spiritual with a literary bent. Here he outlines how to go about creating believable characters, building them bit by bit throughout the story.
Characterization: Creating Memorable Characters
Who could forget about Heathcliff after reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights? Or Anna Karenina? We read to connect with the protagonists and feel their joy and grief, their struggles and triumphs. We enter into their worlds and partake in their adventures.
As writers, how can we develop memorable characters? Let us look at several aspects: appearance, action, speech, and thoughts.
Rather than itemizing the character’s features, we can focus on a few anomalies that will stand out in the readers’ minds and reveal the characters’ personalities and eccentricities. A twitch on the left side of the face, ketchup on the tie, or mud on the shoes. We, as writers, choose the particular features to achieve our goals. The ketchup on the tie might indicate the man is sloppy or distracted. And mud on the shoes might show the woman has been walking in a swamp. Thus appearance can reveal a troubled soul and/or advance the plot. And whether we are writing a mystery, romance or literary novel, the physical description can deepen the characters.
Readers love actions and actions advance plots. But we can learn about the emotional and psychological state of a character through her actions. And readers would prefer a writer’s showing the man smash a table to her saying he is angry. When a woman lights a cigarette and puffs out a plume of smoke, she might be worrying about her missing husband. When a man dances on top of his car, he might be thrilled and uninhibited. Since there are as many ways to show a man to be happy, as there are men, the action always reveals his personality as well as his emotions. The creative writer will find unique actions to characterize the individual and make him or her memorable.
Our words show our concern at that moment. If a mother worries about her teenage daughter being pregnant, she would complain to her husband even if he only wanted to watch Sunday night football. An unemployed man would talk about his job search to his wife and friends. And over a period of time, our speech reveals our focus in life. A book lover would enjoy talking to his friends about the books he had read and would ask his friends for their favorite books. But beyond the contents of speech, the diction also characterizes a person. A scholar might use technical terms, sometimes to show off his knowledge. Fishermen, policemen, software developers have their distinct lingo. A man who says dirty rice might be from Louisiana, or at least knows about such a dish. The creative writer can reveal the character’s mood and emotions and even hidden agenda without speech tags.
The character’s thoughts show his concerns and preoccupations. A man dressing for a date would think about his appearance and his odors. A detective trying to solve a murder case would analyze the clues and relate them to past cases. But the mind can be deceptive and the creative writer would leverage that knowledge to develop subtle and complex characters. When thoughts and actions conflict with each other, the writer has created tension, for the character and for the reader. When a wife condemns a neighbor for her promiscuity and congratulates herself for being a good wife, she might be envying the neighbor for the happiness that she could not have. The unreliable narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day didn’t want to believe that his employer dabbled with the Nazis.
If we know our characters inside out and describe their appearances, actions, speeches and thoughts according to our images of them, we will create characters that seize the readers’ minds and hearts.
About Leonard Seet
Leonard Seet is the author of the novel Meditation on Space-Time. While working overseas as Project Director for a consumer electronics company, he came upon a parchment, which he had drafted in college after booing a novel’s ending. The chicken-scratches had begun to fade, but he succeeded in deciphering the text. The writing was amateurish, but the plot had potential. So, to relieve work stress, he began rewriting the story, along the way learning the art of the trade. Several years later, he resigned from the company to write literary fictions.
Characterization is a large and complex issue – over the coming weeks, we’ll be hosting more posts on building believable characters. How do you build yours? Do you have any favourite characters in novels you’ve read? Share your thoughts on this post in the comments below.