Strong, well-developed characters are the key to great fiction. But how does one create them? If you google character building you’ll find a lot of great tips—questionnaires to fill out, interviews, etc. Prompts to help you determine a character’s background, disposition, and goals. All of this is good—you should do it. But usually this is where the character building tips end, and I believe this is really just step one. The more important piece is how you integrate all of this great information into the story, how you make the characters breathe on the page, how you reveal who they are in subtle but noticeable ways.
That’s what I want to write about here—characterization in fiction, the part that comes after the pre-writing. Assuming that you already know your characters, that you’re aware of their greatest fear, childhood traumas, and favorite ice-cream flavor, here are seven places to insert characterization into your fiction:
1.) Dialogue (or, in the case of first person, the prose at large)
This is the most obvious, perhaps, and for good reason. What characters say and how they say it is going to define them. Heck, sometimes what they don’t say defines them. Despite the obviousness of this, I’ve read plenty of fiction that misses the opportunity to create dialogue that helps inform characterization—books where all of the characters sound the same, where they lack unique voices. If your characters are sounding identical, either you’ve got a cast of clones on your hands (a whole different problem) or you’re failing to give your characters their voice. There are plenty of ways to distinguish characters in dialogue:
- Standard or non-standard speech?
Given a character’s personality, class, education level, and background—consider just how correctly or ‘incorrectly’ they should speak. Be mindful of word usage, grammar, syntax, and contractions, and do your best to be consistent.
A good example of this is Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, which beautifully contrasts standard and non-standard speech. There’s never any question whether it’s Viola or Todd speaking, as their voices are so distinct.
I’m starting to get afraid we’ve taken a seriously wrong turning which we can’t do nothing about cuz there ain’t no turning back.
“Isn’t any turning back,” I hear Viola say behind me, under her breath.
I turn to her, eyes wide. “That’s wrong on two counts,” I say. “Number one, constantly reading people’s Noise ain’t gonna get you much welcome here.”
She crosses her arms and sets her shoulders. “And the second?”
“The second is I talk how I please.”
“Yes,” Viola says. “That you do.”
In order to be consistent, I’ve started creating notes for specific characters to keep track of their unique rules of speech. That way, if I want to have them say a certain thing, I can be sure that it does not conflict with their previous speaking patterns.
- Word Choice and References
An individual’s personal lexicon is informed by their experiences. Consider what kind of words your character is likely to use based on his or her upbringing and world-view. Younger characters are likely to use some words and phrases that older characters would not, and vice versa. Idioms and metaphors are often good opportunities for characterization. People make comparisons to things with which they are familiar.
Take Siuan Sanche in The Wheel of Time, who grew up in a fishing village and makes (some could argue excessive) fish references:
“When there are fish heads and blood in the water, you don’t need to see the silverpike to know they are there.”
There’s a million examples of this…Luke Skywalker comparing the exhaust port to a womp rat, or longer, more direct references like this gem from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:
The kitchen smells of yeast, a nostalgic smell. It reminds me of other kitchens, kitchens that were mine. It smells of mothers; although my own mother did not make bread. It smells of me, in former times, when I was a mother.
- Characteristics shining through dialogue
I love when characters reveals their personalities for themselves, rather than having it explained by the author in exposition. So, confident characters should speak confidently. Thoughtful characters should say thoughtful things. Stupid characters should, unwittingly, speak unintelligently. Jane Austen was a genius at this. Take this conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility:
“He cannot bear writing, you know,” she continued; “he says it is quite shocking.”
“No,” said he, “I never said any thing so irrational. Don’t palm all your abuses of languages upon me.”
“There now; you see how droll he is. This is always the way with him! Sometimes he won’t speak to me for half a day together, and then he comes out with something so droll—all about any thing in the world.”
In this snippet of dialogue we understand much about these two characters and what their relationship is like. We understand that she is silly and he finds her annoying, though neither of these are explicitly stated.
Or take Rachel Aaron’s titular character Eli Monpress. This is one of the first things he says (to a door, no less):
“Wait,” it grumbled suspiciously. “You’re not a wizard, are you?”
“Me?” Eli clutched his chest. “I, one of those confidence tricksters, manipulators of spirits? Why, the very thought offends me! I am but a wanderer, moving from place to place, listening to the spirits’ sorrows and doing what little I can to make them more comfortable.”
Right away, we understand that this character is charming yet mischievous, and we know it because of his dialogue (and perfect action beat, but I’m getting to that).
- Walk the walk.
This is obvious, and shouldn’t be worth saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: your characters actions need to match up with their personalities. An individual may occasionally act out of character, but the vast majority of the time they do not. If the narrative is telling me that a character is strong yet they act weak, I’m going to think the narrative is lying. The most common example of this that I see is the ‘strong’ female character. We’re told she’s smart, but she acts like an idiot. Ugh.
- Action Beats
On a smaller level, action beats—short descriptions of action, often used to break up dialogue—are a great place to build character. These small snippets of action can be general, one-size-fits-all human behaviors, but they are so much better when they are tailored to a specific character. Lindsay Buroker does a wonderful job with these in her Emperor’s Edge series (the first book of which is free, and if you like action/fantasy you should definitely check it out). Her protagonist is a bit OCD, so she expresses her anxiety by cleaning. When she starts sweeping, we understand she’s anxious and we’re reminded of who she is as an individual.
“Stop cleaning, boss,” Maldynado said from across the room. “You’re injured.”
Amaranthe caught herself wiping the dusty shelves with a rag. “I’m merely removing a layer of dirt in case a map is cowering beneath it.”
3.) Inner Monologue (for third person)
Inner monologue, when used effectively, can be a great way to reveal character personality. This is especially true when a character is speaking or acting differently than they are feeling. When overused, inner monologue becomes tedious, but used sparingly it can be a wonderful way to make readers feel more connected with a character. Thoughts can be written like a line of dialogue with a tag, or they can be set off in italics.
George R. R. Martin uses inner monologue to great effect in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Here’s one example:
“I am a man wedded.” Though not yet bedded. “I no longer frequent whores.” Unless I want to see them hanged.
Be careful, however, that your inner monologue contributes something that is not already evident in the scene. Thoughts that reiterate what is already obvious are redundant and make for bloated fiction.
4.) Assumptions / Normalcy
All people view the world through the lens of their own personal experiences and beliefs. We each have certain expectations, certain truths we hold. Think about what basic assumptions your characters have and how a given scene meets with or conflicts with those assumptions. A character’s reaction to a situation tells us a lot about what they are used to—what they perceive as ‘normal.’
Take the opening of the first Harry Potter book:
The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance and then, because the smiling lady in the van had asked Harry what he wanted before they could hurry him away, they bought him a cheap lemon ice pop. It wasn’t bad, either, Harry thought, licking it as they watched a gorilla scratching its head who looked remarkably like Dudley, except that it wasn’t blond. Harry had the best morning he’d had in a long time.
We meet Harry and we see how his aunt and uncle treat him. The fact that he takes the ill-treatment in stride, that despite being only begrudgingly allowed to come to the zoo, he says he’s “had the best morning he’s had in a long time,” tells us two things: first, that Harry in a good natured kid. Second, it tells us that, for Harry, this treatment is utterly normal. Had he been outraged or surprised by his family’s behavior, then we would infer that this issue is new. His reaction gives us information about what his childhood was like, even without an explanation.
5.) Impact on Others
One of my favorite ways to learn about a character is to see them through the eyes on another character, or to read the way that they affect those around them. How do people respond to your character? What do they think of him or her? This can be especially fun when the character sharing his or her opinion has a differing viewpoint. It is particularly useful when the character in question is larger than life. Describing such a person in terms of how they make others feel is one of the best ways to hammer home the point.
Gatsby, for instance:
“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
In a first person novel, it’s always great to get another character’s take. For example, in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind (a book with stunning charecterizaton. Ok, a book that’s just plain stunning) we always see the female character through the poetic, besotted eyes of Kvothe. Hearing someone else’s opinion of the girl, a more impartial source, really helps us understand her as a character in a broader sense:
“I’m not saying she wasn’t lovely, Reshi,” Bast said quickly. “She smiled at me. It was…it had a sort of… it went right down into you, if you understand me.”
“I understand, Bast. But then again, I’ve met her .”
6.) See as They See
In first person or a tight third, there is the opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of the character. How a person perceives the world around them is unique—what they notice, what they ignore, what strikes them as beautiful or ugly. A character who loves fashion is likely to notice clothing. A character who is an artist will view the world with an artistic eye—he or she will pay more attention to colors and composition. If you were looking through your character’s eyes, what would you see? What would you focus on?
One of the brilliant elements of the show Sherlock is the opportunity to see through Sherlock Holmes’s eyes. The way he stores maps and information in his mind and then treats reality like it’s an iPad, sifting through information and reaching rapid, informed conclusions, is breathtaking.
7.) Objects / Spaces
Objects and personal spaces are another great way to embed characterization in fiction. The things a character keeps with them, or treasures, or discard thoughtlessly, tell us a ton about who they are and what matters to them. The state of those objects is also indicative of character: which things are well cared for, and which are poorly-treated? An object kept, especially if it is an object that has no worth outside of sentiment, gives backstory and allows readers to understand what a character holds dear, even if they don’t come out and say it. For example, in Susanna Kearsely’s beautiful fantasy / romance novel The Firebird, we get this wonderful detail about the male lead’s watch:
I hadn’t really looked at it too closely until now, that watch, but suddenly it struck me that it looked just like the watch that I had given him two years ago— only that watch had just been a joke gift, a throwaway, bought off the counter at Boots when he’d turned up late one time too often.
The character, Rob, hasn’t expressed his lingering feelings for the protagonist yet, but the information that he kept a cheap watch she’d given him lets us in on his secret. It’s a light touch, which makes it all the more effective.
Or, take Hugh Howey’s Wool, where in the first scene we get this heart-rending detail:
Holston thought suddenly of the lottery he and Allison had won the year of her death. He still had the ticket; he carried it everywhere.
The ticket allowed Holston and his wife to conceive a child, only his wife is gone and all he has now is that ticket. Argh, that’s painful!
If a character has a home, office, locker…any kind of space that belongs to him or her, there, too is an opportunity. Is the space clean or messy? What is the general feeling and atmosphere? Tolkien introduces us to Bilbo’s hobbit hole before he introduces us to Bilbo, but really the two have a similar effect:
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats…
So, there you have it. There are so many ways to create strong characters outside of exposition. When you have strong characterization on every front—in speech, mannerisms, perceptions, and so on, that is when a character comes to life on the page. And that is when the magic happens.Serkan Turk