I’ve decided to keep this blog dedicated to writing, whether that’s my writing or any aspect of the writing process. I meet with a lovely pair of writers each week where we explore different aspects of writing. So, much of this blog will probably be gleaned from my writer’s group, but should be as helpful and informative as our group has been so that we can all advance as writers. I encourage all of you to join local writing groups or start one of your own if there aren’t any where you live. They are wonderful.
I thought we could cover characterization for this first foray because characters are so vital to our stories. The best plot will fall flat on its face if it’s peopled by weak characters. Characters really are the life of our writing and key to our readers becoming immersed in our story. So how do we write strong characters?
Know the clichés and how to break them. Now it’s easy to quibble about the difference between clichés and archetypes, but I think if we’re honest about it, we know which ones are overused. We don’t have to stay away from the archetypes, we just have to be self-aware about them. Want to use the lover? Just don’t make him your dark and brooding solution to your Mary Sue. Got your hero? Don’t make him an orphan with a destiny. We already have Harry Potter. You get my point.
Make sure your characters all have flaws. Especially your protagonist and antagonist (they should be evenly matched in both abilities and weaknesses, but that’s for another time). Nobody likes someone perfect and flaws help make your characters relatable (good thing) and makes your story more interesting (double win).
Give your characters some quirks. Strange habits or mannerisms make people human. Give your characters an idiosyncrasy and watch them emerge into real life (almost).
Character goals are a must. Everyone has goals, desires, ambitions. As with flaws, giving your character a goal or ambition is the easiest way to make your character relatable and those goals push your plot forward. Make every character want something, even if it’s just to be left alone.
Know your characters’ histories, but don’t bog down your story with backstory. Your story is in the present so you don’t want to slow down your action by putting too much unnecessary information in, no matter how tempting it is. Only give information that helps drive your present story forward.
Let them fail, let them struggle, let them work for it. This not only creates suspense, but it also shows off every aspect of your characters’ personalities. Are they graceful under pressure? Or do they snap?
Know POV and each character’s point of view. Each character has a unique personality, way of thinking, and upbringing and just like every person has a different perspective on things your characters should as well. So make sure each character’s perspective is defined and on display. Know your character inside and out.
Pay attention to how they speak, use diction, use slang, etc. This means dialect, grammar usage or lack thereof, mannerisms and gestures, and accents are all ways to showcase your individual characters as their lovely, unique selves. Figure out how each one speaks and keep them distinct from one another. Readers should be able to identify each character based on how they talk. Also keep in mind things like sarcasm and sense of humor.
Finally, focus on character development. How do your characters change and grow from the story’s conflict? How do they redeem themselves from unforgiveable acts? What epiphanies did they have along the way? Who are they now? These questions should be clear by the end of your story if you have well-rounded, fleshed-out characters. That’s why it’s so important as authors to be able to answer them before we write (or as we write if you’re a pantser). Think and develop your characters and you’ll add always beneficial depth to your story.
Not every character needs to be fully developed, you will have minor characters, but every character that affects the story does need to be. That includes your antagonist. A fun exercise in characterization we did in my writing group was to choose a personality type from the Myers-Briggs types, choose a character flaw, choose a character goal and write a full character sketch from that. The personality types are great for writers exploring characters that are completely different to them. They really give a lot of depth to characters so play around with the Myers-Briggs types.
Hope these tips helped, if you have any sage advice I neglected, share it in the comments. Happy writing!