Updated: Sep 4, 2020
The subject of characterization has brought me stress for many years because everyone has a different opinion of what characterization means. No matter what I have my characters do feel, and say, critics say, "No, that's not characterization."
Many reviewers of my stories insist that my tales must answer the following questions:
What do my characters look like?
Do they have limps? Tattoos? Scars? Do they speak with accents?
What are their wishes, hopes, talents, strengths, and weaknesses?
What are their favorite meals, their fears, and do they like cats or dogs?
What is their past like? Their accomplishments? Their failures?
The numerous "writing" books I’ve read and the copious websites I've visited all give me the same lecture summarized in the above bullets.
Yet, the people who give me such speeches do not include the above information in their stories. So I tell them, “These descriptions aren't in your work, either.” Then they get upset and tell me I don’t understand, and that I should take classes.
My long search for the meaning of "characterization" has boiled down to three factors. Interestingly, these three factors are also what matter to us most in real life. What makes fictional characters alive is the same thing that makes real people alive.
What choices your characters make when faced with adversity, failure, and success.
How your characters feel when faced with adversity, failure, and success.
Showing one or two of the characters' dominant motivations and traits through their path of handling these adversities, failures, and successes.
You want evidence?
To help verify my claim, let’s look at a collection of some famous and well-loved fictional characters:
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games). What defines her are the choices she makes when confronted with issues and how she feels about them. Her predominant motivation: Protect her sister and mother. Dominant trait: Fierce under fire.
Princess Leia (Star Wars). What defines her are the choices she makes when confronted with issues and how she feels about them. Her predominant motivation: Freedom for her people. Dominant trait: (I'm still trying to think of one.)
L.B. Jeffries (Rear Window). What defines him are the choices he makes when confronted with issues and how he feels about them. His predominant motivation? Adventure, proxied by solving the mystery of Lars Thorwald’s missing wife as seen from his (Jeffries') living room window. Dominant trait: Cranky.
Harry Potter (Harry Potter). What defines him are the choices he makes when confronted with issues and how he feels about them. His predominant motivations? Discovering who he really is and what happened to his parents. Dominant trait: Unsure.
Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes). What defines him are the choices he makes when confronted with issues and how he feels about them. His predominant motivation? To be the smartest detective who ever lived. Dominant trait: Self-absorbed.
Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind). What defines her are the choices she makes when confronted with issues and how she feels about them. Her predominant motivation? Getting what she wants at the expense of everyone including her best friends, and ultimately of Rhett Butler. Dominant trait: Self-centered.
Peter Pan (Peter Pan). What defines him are the choices he makes when confronted with issues and how he feels about them. His predominant motivation? To protect Neverland's inhabitants from Captain Hook. Dominant trait: Happy-go-lucky.
Ready for the quiz? Other than a vague idea of how they look, can you answer these questions regarding the characters listed above?
Does he/she have a limp? Tattoos? Scars? Does he/she speak with accents?
What are his/her wishes, hopes, talents, strengths, and weaknesses?
What are his/her favorite meals, his/her fears, and does he/she like cats or dogs?
What is his/her past like? His/her accomplishments? His/her failures?
Somehow these questions don't seem so relevant now, are they?
Everyone loves Princess Leia without knowing anything about her, including her favorite color or about her backstory or who raised her (at least in the first movie).
What is the secret that makes characters come alive?
If superficial details don't matter to the reader, what is it in the story that joins the reader's and character's hearts together forever?
The answer, I believe, is found in one word: rumination.
Rumination reveals the character's internal thoughts, questions, fears, and wishes. Rumination tells the truth about the character, while the character's spoken dialogue may be biased or even dishonest. Rumination comes from the character herself, not from the narrator:
I'm not sure if I can tell her, Vicki thought. She'll never forgive me.
I'm getting too old for this, the professor thinks.
Rumination and internal thoughts come from the heart of the character instead of from a faceless, nameless narrator.
Everyone loves secrets. Especially the deep ones. Enter stage left: rumination!
Readers love dialogue, too. Dialogue reveals secrets, too. So which is it? Dialogue or rumination?
The ideal ratio between the amount of dialogue and rumination (internal dialogue) is a magical formula known only to the author, but is experienced by the reader.
How can you get the correct ratio between rumination and dialogue? Either be an experienced author or get feedback from readers of your story draft. When your critics say, "You're characters are too flat," what they are really saying is, "There is too much action and dialogue, and not enough heart-felt admission from your characters."
What they're not saying is, "Tell me more about your character's hobbies and their favorite kind of cereal."
Rumination is what sets literature apart from movies. The big screen often does not sufficiently portray the character's inner thoughts. Could it be that this is why people tend to like the book more than the movie?
Luckily, converting between dialogue and rumination is not the most difficult task an author must face.
I keep hearing that main characters must have a weakness. This sort of literary device is okay so long as the reader does not detect it's there for formulaic reasons. The weakness must be natural and organic, else it becomes a cliché and your story is dead.
This is my problem with the acclaimed Netflix TV series, Broadchurch. The lead detective has a psychological problem that unravels him anytime he gets too stressed. Similarly, the supporting detective struggles with being effective because she is too emotionally connected with the people in the small town.
How convenient for the writers. Built-in conflict anytime they want it. Conflict at the throw of a switch. Must be nice.
I prefer the weakness of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien). Bilbo is a small, unassuming hobbit who doesn't like adventures and wants to take naps often. This problem isn't artificially placed into the character because all hobbits don't like adventures and want to take naps often. It's just how hobbits are.
Relatability is everything
Is your character relatable, engaging, and interesting? Does he or she grab all the attention in the room? To answer this question, take the character out of the story, away from plot and backstory, and sit him or her on the chair next to you. Would this character keep your attention? If not, then you need to work on that character until he or she does.
If you must!
If you cannot resist providing physical description of your characters, you may provide only the details that enhance your story's theme, feeling, mood, or setting. She can have a scar on her left cheek only if it means something to the story.
The take from this
Simplify your characters into creatures driven by one or two motivations. Show how they react, in terms of choices, behavior, and feelings to the situations in which they find themselves.
In real life, what defines you the most? Who are you in real life? Your character and value come from the sum total of all the decisions you’ve made in your life. That is who you really are.
If you disagree, tell me so. E-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.