Thursday, September 09, 2010

Characterization - Get Real!

I wrote this article a couple years ago and teach a characterization session in schools based on these ideas.
 (Side note - yes, I realize I finally hit 300 followers! And good new - my mom is now at the assisted living facility! Also a BIG finally!)

If the plot is the backbone of the story, then the characters are the heart. Creating believable characters that your readers will identify with is crucial to a good story. Your characters must have depth, personality and the ability to evoke an emotional response from your reader.

Before you can formulate a riveting story, an interesting character must be devised. Many writers envision the setting first and the people inhabiting that world second. This often results in shallow characters. Developing a character in depth, complete with flaws, will give you a basis for your narrative. It is easier to build a plot around an individual than force that character into unrealistic situations.

Two factors will determine your character – their background and their personality type. Both are equally important and require some thought. Humans all share similar feelings and needs, but how they respond to those depends on their upbringing and their basic, fundamental personality. You need to be aware of these factors when writing your story.

Backgrounds are as varied as humans themselves. Race, culture, religion, and economic status all contribute to one’s development as a person. A person’s moral compass is easily affected by their upbringing, and you need to keep this in mind when creating your characters. A person raised by a loving family on a farm and someone raised on the streets of New York will not react the same! Flesh out your character with a family history, interests, and experiences.

Become familiar with the four basic personality types – choleric, sanguine, melancholy and phlegmatic. They will also determine how your character reacts in any given situation. (“Personality Plus” by Florence Littauer is an excellent book for researching these personality traits.) A bold, first-born choleric would likely take charge in a situation, while an introverted phlegmatic would step aside. You need to be aware of these personality traits in your character or you will find them responding in a dubious fashion.

Avoid the temptation to create a perfect character! People are flawed creatures and the more imperfections and internal conflicts your character possesses, the more intriguing your story. Give them weaknesses, impulses and unresolved issues. Negative aspects of your character might improve and eventually vanish, but this needs to be developed slowly during the course of your narrative. Life altering moments happen for us all, but a sudden change for no apparent reason will be looked upon as a mere plot contrivance.

Characters will always be the drive and focal point of any story. By putting a great deal of thought into your main characters, you will form interesting, relatable people. Once you have established this foundation, you can begin creating an intriguing tale!


Alissa Grosso said...

Some of my characters seem to come to life with no problem, but others can be a bit more stubborn. I think this is because I haven't really yet figured out what they are all about.

Karen Lange said...

Great advice, thanks! I need to polish my skills in this area.
Congrats on the followers!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great tips, Diane! I'm going to tweet this. Congrats on the followers!

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Great post, Diane. I took notes. It came at just the right time.


Some wonderful tips, thanks for sharing.


Jessica Bell said...

Wow, you and I are both on exactly 300 foloowers today! Yay!

Speaking of characters, I wish people would put more emphasis on them than plot sometimes. Sometimes the characters MAKE the story. I mean, you could have typical story line with really interesting characters and it could be the best book ever written. Take LOST for example, Who gives a toss about a plane crash and people stranded on an island? Are you serious? How many times has that been done? But wait, look at the characters. The characters and their intricate backstories made that show a success, right?

That what bothers me nowadays. Agents and publishers are all after MIND SHATTERING PLOTS, when really, I think they should be looking deeper into the way the characters are developed. But how can they possible do that when QUERY letters focus on plot?

Brad Jaeger said...

So, oft it chances in particular men, That for some vicious mole of nature in them, As, in their birth—wherein they are not guilty, Since nature cannot choose his origin—By the o'ergrowth of some complexion, Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason, Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens The form of plausive manners, that these men, Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, Being nature's livery, or fortune's star—Their virtues else—be they as pure as grace, As infinite as man may undergo—Shall in the general censure take corruption From that particular fault.

- Hamlet

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always think about the characters first. I scrapped everything from the original story of Cassastar - except the two main characters.

Hart Johnson said...

So glad things are finally getting settled with your mom! I'm sure that is a load off. Great stuff on characterization. It's funny-I am a psychologist by education, and so my PRIMARY characters are pretty easy to keep consistent (having studied motivation and such) but my side characters can be harder, so this is great stuff to keep in mind.

RaShelle Workman said...

congrats on 300!!! Glad your mom is in assisted living. That must help. And I so agree on creating our characters.

This book I'm reading, it feels like the world and the descriptions are more of a character than the characters themselves. It's driving me crazy. I've done something I've never done before. It's a three series book and I read the last 30 pages of the third book since I knew how it would end anyway for closure. Terrible, I know, but that's how bad the descriptions were getting in my way.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on you 300th follower! May your tribe increase :-)

Jai Joshi said...

Diane, first of all I'm glad things have been sorted out for your mother. That's great news.

Secondly, massive congrats on reaching 300 followers!

Thirdly, this is some very good advice on building characters. You make important points.


Anonymous said...

Great post Diane! I have PERSONALITY PLUS by Florence Littauer sitting on my bookshelf. I haven't read it in years, but I'll have to dust it off and read it again.

CONGRATS on your 300 followers! Have a great weekend!

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I sometimes have difficulty getting to know my characters. This is a very helpful post! Thank you!

Kerri Eckes said...

LOL I am writing about a young woman who grew up in a loving family (her father is a minister) in a small farm town, who has moved to New York City and gets mixed up in the fast city culture, so your comment about how a person's background can affect their choices made me laugh.

In fact, my story started with the character and I had to work the plot around where I wanted to go. My problem is more the opposite - more focus on character while I began with an iffy plot that took / is taking a lot of work.

Kerri Eckes said...

Oh, one thing I did to help me flesh out my secondary characters (I had my main one down) was to take the Myers-Briggs test online as if I was that character. I bookmarked the results for the different characters, to help me if I was stuck on how they might react to something. I was reading about how another writer does that.