What is characterization? It’s such an awfully long word for what is a relatively simple concept in fiction. Yet it’s a concept brimming with methods, tools, tips, and guidance, such that it can become more complex than it needs to be.
In short, characterization is the process of creating a fictional character. In this guide, we’ll first consider what characterization is, as well as the definitions of direct characterization and indirect characterization. We’ll then look at what makes a character interesting, a few effective ways how you can create characters, and lastly the importance of character growth. There are also a bunch of helpful resources on characterization at the bottom of the guide.
Defining characterization, indirect characterization and direct characterization
It’s not an easy skill to come up with interesting and compelling characters. My research article exploring the reasons why people stopped reading a book revealed weak characterization to be one of the biggest culprits.
So what exactly is characterization? It’s an umbrella term for the many facets that go into creating a fictional character. This covers everything from how they appear, how they think and feel, their background and upbringing… everything to do with who they are.
When it comes to writing fiction, there are two types of characterization: direct and indirect.
What is direct characterization?
As the name suggests, this is a no-frills approach to describing and revealing a character. It includes the likes of physical descriptions such as height, weight, peculiar features; hobbies and pursuits, such as a fondness for tennis; marital status, if relevant; or the likes of their job. Such forms of characterization are crucial in revealing our characters and forming them in the minds of readers.
What is indirect characterization?
As you’d expect, this is the opposite to direct characterization and encapsulates everything the narrative description doesn’t directly provide. So it covers the likes of:
- Physical actions
Indirect characterization is a terrific way of revealing more about a character without dumping a load of information on readers. Instead, subtle hints can be dropped into the narrative, encouraging readers to engage with the character to try and piece together the jigsaw of who they are.
Why is direct and indirect characterization important?
Both forms of characterization complement each other. It would be a dull read to be constantly fed direct descriptions. Readers enjoy the challenge of uncovering a character, of discovering who they really are. Using indirect clues, like physical reactions and dialogue, is a terrific way of doing so. Not only does it encourage greater reader engagement, but it also avoids the risk of the writing and narrative becoming flat.
So now we know a bit more about characterization, how do we go about coming up with characters? Let’s first consider what makes a character interesting.
What makes a character interesting?
Many ingredients go into the broth of making an interesting character. Here are just a few examples:
- A character who experiences conflicted morals, such as those forced to choose between right or wrong, or the lesser of two evils.
- A character that can do something that no one else can. Only Frodo, with his untainted soul, can take the ring to Mordor. Only Daenerys Targaryen can withstand raging flames.
- A character that is out of their depth makes for an interesting read. So, for example, Prince Yarvi in Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King admits he is the least able person to be King, but try he must.
- Relationships with others. Is the character part of a gang of close friends, like in James Barclay’s The Chronicles of The Raven? Or is the character in love with someone who they cannot be with or long to be with, like Kvothe and Denna in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind?
- A character that reminds us of ourselves. This is a good way to create empathy. The character may do something that the reader has always wanted to do, but is unable. That’s the beauty of fiction—possibility.
- The character may be very proactive, something we’ll discuss below.
- A character may have imperfections. I explore character imperfections in some detail in my guide on how to plot a story, which you can read by clicking here. I’ll echo what was said there: not only do imperfections enable the reader to connect on an empathetic level with the character, it adds a whole other perspective to the struggles that they go through. Imperfections also provide a source of conflict. A character could have physical imperfections, like Tyrion Lannister having dwarfism, or Yarvi in Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King having only one hand. Mental challenges could be involved too, like depression or a lack of confidence. In my debut novel, Pariah’s Lament, one of my protagonists, Isyara, is born with a birthmark that covers much of her face. This physical imperfection sees her scorned, bullied, abused and cast aside not just by society, but her own parents. I found introducing an imperfection like this was a terrific way of generating empathy toward Isy, such that readers instantly find her likeable.
- Another thing that makes for an interesting character is humour. The Raven in Barclay’s books forever jokes with each other. Humour isn’t restricted to just dialogue too—incidents such as Laurel and Hardy-esque accidents make for good reading, as well as character’s reactions to things. Facial expressions, body language and the like.
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Playing God: Tools for Crafting Characters
Perspective is vital to understanding people and how they behave and think, which in turn will give you more genuine characters. An example given by Brandon Sanderson, a lesson he, in fact, learned from Robert Jordan, is to look at how two people perceive a bottle of water. A woman from the desert will look at it with reverence, treasuring, guarding, and savouring it, such is its scarcity. Whereas someone who lives by a river would regard it with indifference.
Having a character with a unique perspective can really enhance a story. Not just that, it gives the writer a way to put their own twist on tropes already bludgeoned to death. If we look at the classic good vs evil debate, one that never ceases to fascinate me: a person who does what we understand to be moral believes she is right. But an evil, depraved individual believes she is right too. Who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? We are guided by our perceptions, but what if those perceptions were warped? Experiment. Break moulds.
Brandon Sanderson is of the view that each character has three core features which we can measure on sliding scales: competence, likeability, and proactivity. Each scale links in with the others. Let’s take a look at an example:
Villains tend to be competent and proactive but fall low on the likeability scale. For example, Darth Vader is hell-bent on destroying the rebels and he’s not too shabby at it.
Everyone loves a trier, but as hard as they may try they never succeed or end up making things worse.
Let’s explore each scale in more detail:
A good way to make a character likeable is to have other characters talk about them in positive ways. But strive for subtlety—what they say must have relevance to the tale.
It’s said if you want someone to like a character have them stroke a dog. If you want them to be hated, have them kick it, or worse, kill it.
We as readers naturally like characters that move the story along, that try their best. Frodo, for example, was extremely motivated to take the ring to Mordor and didn’t stop until he got there. A reluctant character, someone riddled with fear, or who’s content with their lot, would fall low on the proactivity scale.
How can you make a character proactive?
- They may have dreams or aspirations.
- They may have an oath to keep, a promise to fulfil.
- A character may have been forced into a difficult situation, one they must get out of. For example, being enslaved or kidnapped.
- A character may have a longing to explore, to break free.
These are just a few; there are many more. See what you can come up with.
Most characters tend to be competent in one way or another. There are the hapless village idiots, of course, that can’t do anything right (see ‘the fool’ scale above). Then you have characters who are competent in one particular area, like smithing or archery. And then we have our legendary heroes, like David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend, who can single-handedly defeat entire armies. But that’s not to say your average Joes can’t improve and develop some new skills. In fact, we love to see this happen. It’s a great way to grow a character (we’ll come to this shortly).
Highly competent characters tend to be likeable. We enjoy reading about a master or expert going about their business. Yes, it can get tedious, but done well it works. Over twenty movies down the line and people still aren’t bored of James Bond saving the world, massacring henchmen and blowing shit up. Who doesn’t love watching Liam Neeson destroying half of Paris in Taken, Aragorn battling hordes of orcs, or Pug from the Riftwar Saga destroying a planet? Highly competent characters don’t always have to be likeable, like Darth Vader, as shown in the villain scale above.
You don’t have to limit yourself to these three scales. You could go into more specific detail. If you’re a fan of computer games, you could approach it like picking your character’s attributes. I love games like The Elder Scrolls for how in-depth they go with characterization.
Many fantasy stories involve characters who start off in a humble setting and go on to achieve mastery. Pug in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings.
Characters who develop by learning new skills or overcoming hurdles tend to be interesting and likeable. We overcome obstacles in our day to day lives and enjoy reading about others doing the same.
I don’t particularly like the word ‘ordinary’ to describe people, but for lack of a better word, we enjoy people who live ordinary lives and go on to achieve greatness. I suppose it makes us feel like we can do the same, that if they can do it against the odds, so can we.
There’s a nifty tool to aid you with character growth, a development line of sorts, known as ‘the everyman and the superman.’
Generally, a story involving a ‘superman‘ tends to involve a highly competent character saving the world. There isn’t much room for character growth because they’re already the best at everything ever. Take James Bond, for example. He’s forever foiling plots to destroy the world and nobody ever doubts that he’s going to fail.
Supermen, however, can fall like redwoods, and this is an interesting approach you can take to shake things up.
I recommend dipping your nose into the book The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. Lukeman is one of the best literary agents in the game. He provides insights into the things to avoid as well as solutions and exercises. I’ll briefly go over a few things to avoid when it comes to crafting characters—for the solutions you’ll have to buy it!
- Don’t jump headfirst into the story without taking the time to establish the characters.
- Avoid cliché characters, like the Russian spy or the alcoholic policeman.
- Don’t introduce too many characters at once. The reader’s mind will boggle.
- Make it clear who the protagonist is.
- Make sure characters are relevant, even those on the periphery. If they’re not needed it uses up the reader’s energy.
- Be creative with character description. A unique description can enhance a story.
If you’re itching for more on character, I’ve got a few more guides you can check out:
If you’d like something a bit more visual, I can’t recommend Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on character more highly enough.
If you’re looking to sink your teeth into some more text, then I recommend the chapters on characterization in the following books: