How do you create memorable characters? What’s the best form of characterization, the magic bullet that will turn a name on a page into a person so vivid and compelling, you imagine they’re real?
How NOT to Develop Characters
Do you introduce them with backstory, summarizing their life from childhood to the present for five to ten pages? Do you describe them in detail, from the tips of their hairs to their crusty toenails? Do you open your novel line one with a snappy bit of dialogue and let your reader figure out what’s going on?
I don’t think so. Backstory is fine, but a little goes a long way. A paragraph or two will do.
Description is great, but it’s only skin deep. And a person is rarely who they say they are.
And filling your story with trivia like your character’s favorite ice cream flavors or which movie they saw three times in theaters won’t move the plot forward or show us who they really are.
Characterization is one of those topics they teach at the beginning of writer’s workshops and creative writing classes.
But I’m about to say something provocative, something that may alienate me to writing professors everywhere. Here it is. You ready?
Characterization Is Worthless
Worse than worthless, characterization might even be harmful to the writing of your story. Let me explain.
Good characters are the reason we read stories. We develop a relationship with Elizabeth Bennett, Holden Caulfield, and Harry, the boy who lived. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy become our best buds, and when the story ends we’re sad they have to leave us.
Have you ever heard of fan fiction? Some fourteen-year-old from Iowa wants to hang out with Harry after Hogwarts so they write a story and post it in a forum.
Good characters are why most people read, I think. However, in order to create a character people want to be BFFs with, the characterization is secondary.
Plot: What to Do Instead
In fiction, plot reveals character.
Don’t believe me? Here’s an oft-repeated explanation of the three-act structure:
You have to throw rocks at your characters. You have to find elaborate ways of making their lives hell. You have to stymie their desire and fail to meet their basic needs: food, shelter, companionship, significance.
That sounds like a plot, right? It’s the events of your story, the problems and hurdles your character encounters.
But it’s actually characterization. Or really, it’s both plot and characterization.
Why? Because causing your characters problems is how you reveal their character.
What do your characters do, then? Not where they grew up or what color their eyes are or what they say their favorite food is. What do they do?
As Viktor Frankl says, “A human being is a deciding being.”
We remember characters because they do interesting things. We forget characters whose favorite food is pizza.
Start With Problems
You don’t start writing a story with characterization. You do what Allie Fox did to his son in Mosquito Coast: you push them into the dark, scary bowels of Fat Boy.
You send them up the sails of a ship tossing in a hurricane. You take them to Belize. You make a man out of them, against their will and better judgment.
If, instead, you start with characterization, you’ll fall in love with your character prematurely.
This is a real danger. How will you do the necessary work of torturing them until they cry out in agony if you empathize with them too much too soon? Better to punish them before you know who they are yet.
Don’t worry about characterization. Focus on throwing rocks at your characters, at finding the perfect problems that will cause them to struggle, to face a crisis and make hard decisions.
As your character reacts to and deals with the pain, we’ll see who they are.
In your stories, what have your characters done that has defined them? Let us know in the comments.