Character is the third-most important aspect of a story. Hah! Bet you never expected to hear something like that come out of my mouth. Great character is not the most important piece of a story? Blasphemy! The fact of the matter is that the ability to string words together in a manner coherent enough that someone will actually want to pick up the result and read it is arguably the most important piece of the storybook puzzle. Fortunately, it is also one of those things that you can get better at with practice at reading and writing. So, not difficult, just time consuming. Second on that list of importance is likely the hook: that piece of “zing” (as John Brown says) that grabs a reader’s attention and gives you a little temporal real estate to work with. Those are pretty much one-offs, though. You find ’em, you stick ’em into the beginning of your story, and then you’re done with ’em. What is it then that comes next, if not for character? What else will capture a reader’s mind or heart in such a way that they will not only keep reading that particular story, but will also keep them coming back to you for more story again and again? There is no other answer. It can only be character. And yet, for how vitally important character is to a story, it seems I find stories time and again that fail to get it right. So I thought I’d make a few notes and write a thing or two about it in connection with the SPFBO in hopes that it might help someone along their path to being a great author. (We’re all just charitable like that here at EBR, and this has nothing to do with the fact that we only want to spend our time reading amazing stories. Okay. Maybe that last part, just a teensy bit.)
Think about some really popular writers. A few come to mind for me: Stephen King, Robert Jordan, Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson. Heck, James Patterson for that matter. I’m not (overly) partial to speculative authors after all. Do any of those authors write stories with weakly defined characters in them? Nope. Why is that? I’ll tell you why. Because people love well-defined characters.
How then do we do it? It’s not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish, but it is somewhat simple:
Tell your story through the lens of the character.
What does the character want? Why do they want it? What do they believe? How does any or all of this make them see the world differently than everyone else? Every scene of a story should evoke character. This is one of the reasons why I think the metaphor of a lens is such an apt one. The character is literally the lens through which the story is being told. Everything about the world surrounding them is colored by the specifics of their own “lens” and that is how we as readers receive the story. Characters give a story context; lacking context, a story is only a series of places, events, and actions that ultimately mean very little.
Have you ever heard of the term “cardboard characters”? Ever had someone say that you’d written a cardboard character? This happens when you write a character that has no life to them. They have no desires, no drives, no emotional connection to those around them. They are simply there to interact with other individuals and do particular tasks and move the plot along. At least, that’s the way that it seems, because that’s the way they’ve been written. Instead, give the character’s life context by adding things about them that explain who they are.
Relaying these bits of information can sometimes be tricky, but doing it right is to use every opportunity available to you. Which means for POV characters you use their thoughts and memories within the prose, their words, and their actions. Everything. Secondary characters can show who they are by dialogue and action only, though, as the reader should never be privy to their thoughts. (No head-jumping, people! You hear me? None!) One of the other ways I’ve seen secondary characters characterized really well is through the thoughts of the POV. What does the POV character think of someone else? This is a great way to not only provide that much-needed characterization for secondary characters, but it also gives the author the ability to subvert those opinions through the actions or words of the secondary character, which can be used to great effect. Just don’t have POV characters talk about their own personality traits, which comes off sounding tacky.
So, decide what your characters are made of and what they believe in, and then give them rock solid reasons for those traits; traits that define who they are, which translates into how they make their choices. Then all you have to do is throw situations at them and watch them respond. A story will literally write itself because the characters will tell you, the author, what they are going to do! If the reader already knows what choice your character is going to make before they make it, then you’ve done your job well. (As an aside, if you can do this, it also makes writing tension brilliantly easy. Think the hotel room scene in the movie Minority Report and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here.)
The great thing about the concept of understanding a character’s motivations is that you can pre-shape your character to make choices that move the plot forward. There’s no need to make a character and then stick them into a story–doing so will increase the chances of having to try and cram a square peg (character) into a round hole (plot) just so you can move the plot in the direction you want it to go. Unfortunately, your readers will know when you do this, and they’ll know immediately! One good tip to help you recognize when you aren’t quite accomplishing this part of storytelling is when your readers tell you that the story feels contrived. This means you’re trying to force your characters into certain actions that don’t jive with your already established characterization. Also, avoid creating a character only to have them make choices antithetical to their core personality. If, however, you choose to have them make a choice like this, make sure you justify it first. The simple law is that the reader needs to believe it.
If you find you’re having an issue with plot/character conflicts, try putting a minimally molded mannequin into your story to begin with and then decide who your character needs to be to fit the plot. I’m mostly a discovery writer though, so this is how I tackle the issue. Gardeners (those that plan everything out) will have an easier time of it because they’ll be able to mold the character in the outline phase of the story and won’t have to do so much tweaking along the way.
Last, can I talk a little about what characterization is not? Characterization is not:
While helpful for reminding the reader of which character you’re referencing (other than using their name, which doesn’t always work perfectly), these things have almost nothing to do with characterization. As an example, let’s use the quirk of loving chocolate milk. Grumble. A character does not become any more interesting because you’ve told me they love chocolate milk. Ugh. Honestly, I’d like to punch this one in the face until it dies. Instead, how about having a character who hates chocolate milk because when they were growing up their alcoholic mother used to chug the stuff after a bender and then puke all over herself after she passed out. Can’t even see the stuff without smelling sour chunks and acidic bile. Yeah. Now that gives you a peek into a character’s life and their experiences. It tells you a little bit about who they are. And who they are is what character is all about.
Characterization is also not emotion. Characters have emotional responses because of who they are. Without the context of who that character is, what does it mean to the reader if the character is displaying emotion? Does it form a connection with the reader? Likely not. Emotion can absolutely solidify characterization, but it can never define it. Example. A young girl is crying after her father has passed away. What do you know about the girl? That she’ll miss her father, perhaps? That she loved him? What if I told you she hated him? Why then is she crying? That piece right there is the characterization you’re looking for: the reason for the emotional response. Not the response itself.
Are there other ways of writing stories? Yes. Most of you should have heard of Card’s MICE quotient by now: Melieu, Idea, Character, Event. All types of stories that we can write. My point in all of this is that regardless of what kind of story you write, the best version of that story will always be one that has great character in it. It’ll be the one that your readers will most connect with. The one that your readers will most talk about. So why not always write that story?
Remember, the trick to writing great character is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish, but it is somewhat simple:
Tell your story through the lens of the character.