Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Basics of Characterization

Since I've been going over the basics of narrative structure and writing techniques for the past few posts, I figured it's about time that I get to one of the more difficult parts of writing a story: turning your characters from names and appearances into actual characters.

Firstly, let's look at the different types of characters. No, I don't mean antagonists and protagonists. I mean static characters, dynamic characters, flat characters, and rounded characters.

Static characters are characters that remain the same over the course of a story. Dynamic characters are the opposite: characters that change over the course of a story. This doesn't necessarily mean physical changes, such as growing older. Those are some of the most superficial changes that a character can go through, really. Rather, it most often refers to emotional and personal changes.

Flat characters are characters with only one or two defining traits. They are, for all intents and purposes, cardboard cutouts. Or, going back to my first post, they're mannequins with names painted on them. Rounded characters are characters with depth and personality to them, with complex motivations and more to them than a few simple traits.

Now, here's the most important thing to understand: none of these character types are bad. It's incredibly difficult, in fact, to find any work of fiction that doesn't include at least one example of each. Just because static characters don't change doesn't mean that they don't have a purpose. Just because flat characters have little in the way of personality doesn't mean that they can't be useful. You just have to keep in mind that each type of character has a specific role in the story.

Let's look at an example story to get an idea.

Since I've already used Terry Pratchett's novel Guards! Guards! as an example in a previous post, let's go back to that. For those of you who don't know, Guards! Guards! is a fantasy-satire novel about the Night Watch of a fantasy city named Ankh-Morpork. The Night Watch is made up of the city's absolute bottom-of-the-barrel worst. They're not criminals. They're just considered utterly worthless by society. During the time of the story, the Night Watch has dwindled to four members. These are:

  • Captain Sam Vimes, the story's protagonist, a dynamic, rounded character
  • Lance-Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, the story's deuteragonist, a flat, dynamic character
  • Sergeant Fred Colon, a flat, static character
  • Corporal Nobby Nobbs, a flat, static character
Let's break down how each of the character attribute combinations works here.

Vimes is the story's protagonist. He is the most important character, and thus the one that the audience will be spending the most time watching. As such, it's important that he be interesting to read about, and that he isn't a paper-thin caricature that the reader can't take seriously. Being a dynamic character makes him more interesting to read about, since we want to know how he's going to end up. He goes from being a bitter, cynical alcoholic who just wants to be ignored to... a bitter, cynical alcoholic who has decided that upholding the law is the most important thing in his life. He's also a rounded character. He isn't just shown to be bitter and cynical for no reason. We see why he's so jaded and miserable: he was once a wide-eyed idealist who had his dreams of being a well-respected upholder of the right crushed by the realities of life in a city as rife with corruption as Ankh-Morpork, but he retains his moral compass despite everything and does his best to do the right thing.

Carrot is an interesting case. He begins the story as a flat character, being the wide-eyed idealist whose only real purpose is to uphold the law despite everything and thus reawaken Vimes' idealistic side. However, he is also dynamic. He grows over the course of the story - and the series as a whole - becoming less of the naïve idiot and more of a charismatic paragon who knows full well that people are jerks, but chooses to give them all the benefit of the doubt anyway. As such, his dynamic side eventually turns him into a rounded character. This suits his role as deuteragonist perfectly. As the second most important character in the story, it isn't necessary for him to be as fleshed-out as Vimes, but he does get a good deal of character development as things go on.

Colon and Nobby are the simplest out of the four main characters to analyze. They're a flat, static characters. They have a handful of defining characteristics which give them their role in the plot, and they never step outside them (in this book, at least). And, as they are largely present to provide comic relief, this suits their roles perfectly.

So, to get a look at the final type of character, let's look at another cast member: Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician and semi-benevolent dictator of Ankh-Morkpork. Vetinari is a rounded, static character. He has complex motivations, desires, and many hidden depths, but his character is largely set and unchanging throughout the series. This suits his role in the series perfectly as well. Vetinari is an ever-present force in the series, and interacts with a great many characters. As such, he has to be complex and believable. But he isn't a main character himself, and his main motivation - to keep Ankh-Morpork running as smoothly as possible - is constant and logical. He has the ability to achieve that objective without any kind of substantial alteration to his personality or methods, so he doesn't need any character changes in order to make him work. 

You might still be wondering why anyone would ever use static, flat characters. They are, after all, by definition, flat, and never going to get rounded out, so why would you put them in your story when they're just going to get ridiculed for being shallow? Why not make all of your characters as deep and complex as possible, and show how they all grow as a. result of the events of the story?

Simple. The law of conservation of detail.

It's an easy principle that every writer should familiarize themselves with. Your readers don't have an infinite ability to absorb information, and you don't have infinite time in which to give them that information. There's only so much that they can absorb, and only so much that you can put out. As such, any detail which you give in regards to the story, whether regarding a character's personality or anything else, should be important to the story. 

You might argue that it's best to put as many details into the work as possible regardless, because this will help to bring the world of the story to life. Well, you're wrong.

That's pretty much all there is to it. Too many details can drown a work of fiction in a mire of pointless exposition. No one cares about the diner waitress' long and tragic backstory full of crushed dreams and broken lives when her only purpose in the story is to take the main characters' orders and deliver them coffee. Telling the readers too much about her takes time away from what you should be focusing on.

Besides that, certain character types stop working if you try to explore them too deeply. The comedic sociopath archetype, for example (Belkar from The Order of the Stick leaps to mind), stops being funny if you give the sociopath in question an in-depth backstory explaining how their abusive childhood led to their perpetuating the cycle in the present day. 

Look at your characters and determine the absolute bare minimum of personality and development that they require to function within the story. Generally, your protagonist should be both rounded and dynamic, since the story will be focusing most on them and their personal journey, and flat, static characters are useful as bit players and supporting cast (but not as the protagonist, deuteragonist, or antagonist, as those characters usually require more depth), but other than that, things are wide open. It's up to you to determine what character traits to use depending on what type of story you want to tell. 

Once you've determined what type of character you're creating, though, it's important that you go about creating them in the right way. Many works of fiction, not just blogs, begin by having their main character talk about things that they like: their favorite color, what type of music they listen to, what clothes they wear, what they look like, et cetera.


This is one of the most common mistakes that writers make, and one of those most perpetuated by those who try to teach the craft. It is extraordinarily bad characterization technique, and yet many works that purport to tell you how to create intriguing and engaging characters will tell you to begin by deciding on these basic characteristics. 

But these characteristics aren't actually important to who the character is. They don't tell us anything about their personality, really. It's just data. People consider things like this to be central to a character, but in reality, these are some of the most superficial aspects of your character's personality. And, again, this falls into the trap of violating conservation of detail. How much of this information is actually relevant to the story? Anything that you write that is not relevant to the story is boring. Reading about people describing their favorite band, color, food, and the like is boring. Mind-numbingly so. It's made all the more so because the reader knows this is pointless. Yes, in real life, people will post this kind of stuff on their blogs, but this is not real life. You do not have to start out by painting your main character as a boring, mind-numbingly uninteresting fan of music genre X.

These things are much less important than your character's defining personality traits. Are they kind? Bitter? Arrogant? Humble? Idealistic? Cynical? A hero? A coward? Those are the most important things about your character. Those are the things we want to know about them. Those are the things you should be telling us - but not in that way.

If at all possible, avoid any type of expository dump at all. This is another key point of storytelling: show, don't tell. Show us who your character is by having them do things. Have them react to situations rather than just telling us what they would do if something interesting happened.

Going back to the Guards! Guards! example, when Vimes is characterized, we don't get any kind of opening exposition dump regarding his character. Instead, we see it. He's blind stinking drunk in an alley, narrating to himself in crime-noir fashion about how the city is a woman: you love her, but she kicks you in the teeth, but you come back anyway, because she's all yours, all you have, even in her gutters...

Then, when it comes time for Vimes to reveal his true moral beliefs, we don't get told that he's made a decision to stand up against the corrupt officials. We see him doing so, pushing hard to get people to accept that the dragon is still alive to the point of losing his badge - and then carrying on regardless, upholding the law because he was always an officer of the law, and not the city.

Rather than telling us what your character is like, show us. Have things happen to them so that we can see how they react. That tells us more about the character than a week's worth of pointless posts regarding food and pets can ever do, and in a much more interesting fashion. It both tells us about the character and keeps the plot going so that people don't get bored.

Remember: it is always better to show us something about your character than to tell us about it.

Now we get to the final part of this ramble on characterization: physical appearance. This is something that many writers place a good deal too much emphasis on, due to being more used to dealing with things visually rather than conceptually. With so many visual works available, both on TV and the internet, we begin to think of characters' physical appearances as being integral parts of them, and so spend a lot of time telling people about what our characters look like.

In a purely textual medium, however, physical appearance is nearly irrelevant. We can't actually see any of the things that are being described to us. Stephanie Meyer can spend pages upon pages describing Edward Cullen in all of his "statuesque beauty", but we can't actually see the guy no matter how hard she tries. It's pointless to spend that long describing something's looks in a text-only form of communication. So don't try.

In writing, less is often more. This is almost the same idea as The Door in horror, but applied more universally. When writing, broad strokes are almost always - meaning, all but point-bar-over-zero-one percent of the time - better than fine details. Give the audience an idea, and they'll construct the rest of the world for you from there, better than you ever could. 

As an example, compare the following two descriptions for a character's appearance.

Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee... I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin... I’m a goth (in case you couldn’t tell) and I wear mostly black. I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow.

Walks with a cane, wears Coke-bottle glasses, wasn't in the best shape even when he was younger 'cause he smokes too much, all that stuff.

As much as I hate to use my own writing as an example, it was the first thing to hand. 

The first description is from the Harry Potter fanfic My Immortal. Ignoring for the moment the author's atrocious grammar and spelling, do you think that anyone actually cares what color the main character's lipstick, foundation, eyeliner, eyeshadow, corset, et cetera are? 

Again, I hate to use my own writing as an example, but there is a reason that I haven't provided much in the way of physical description for any of the main characters. The only thing that you need to know about LB is that he's an old man in terrible shape with equally-terrible vision, health, and mobility. Aside from that, it honestly doesn't matter what color any of the characters' hair is, how big Christie's bust size is, how tall James is, or anything of the sort. Because these details aren't important to the story, and don't influence the characters themselves in any way, I omit them. It's neither necessary nor particularly desirable for me to give long, pointless descriptions of the characters. Giving broad strokes regarding what LB looks like provides a much better physical description than the excessively-long, oversaturated ramblings on Ebony's makeup. 

To take a more professional example, in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, the eponymous Thomas Covenant is a bitter leper living in exile from society. He is described as being tall, thin, and haggard, with a face like a "prophet's", a perpetual five-o'-clock shadow, beaten, faded clothing, and a right hand missing its last two fingers. Those descriptors give a brilliant mental image as to what Covenant looks like, but nothing there actually goes into any kind of detail. Broad strokes, you see? 

Remember, the audience can fill any gaps that you leave in descriptions with their own imaginations, and it's almost always better than anything that you could come up with. The Door applies to more than horror. When writing, it's best to use broad strokes and to show rather than to tell. This will make your characters much more compelling and keep your story from getting bogged down in pointless exposition regarding details that no one cares about.

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