This Business of Writing

13 Tips to Improve Your Characterization

In The Craft of Writing on November 30, 2009 at 8:46 am

I spent a couple of days at a writers’ conference not too long ago and wanted to pass along a few things I thought might be helpful. The discussion I most enjoyed centered on improving characterization. What follows are the highlights of what I thought interesting. I hope you find them worthy of note, too.

The best writing era for character research was the 1880’s to the 1920’s. I understand this era produced the best novels to exemplify characterization.

Bridge Characters within chapters when you write your novel. For example, if you have a character with a patch over his eye, mention his patch in other areas of your novel when he is present. That helps to cement this character in the reader’s mind.

Tell your readers how a character walks, stutters, etc. This makes the character memorable to your readers. This made me think of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, when Marty Feldman, stooped over with a hunchback, told Wilder to, “Walk this way.” Obviously, this is a useful tool for writers for I’ve kept that image for how long – 30 years?

Pit contrasting characters against each other. Think Laurel and Hardy or Lucy and Ricky.

Put your characters in situation foreign to them. Think fish-out-of-water scenarios. One example might be a goody-two-shoes in a gang fight.

Never put your character in front of a mirror. Yes, there is an exception in Snow White, but then again, even James Bond learned “never” never means never. Right?

The bad guy can always rationalize his actions. He’s not insane, he’s evil.

Find contradiction in your novel’s characters. Imagine our goody-two-shoes who finally succumbs to the neighbor’s wife’s enchantments. You might write about the vegetarian who is forced to eat meat to stay alive.

Every character needs something in every chapter. (Ah, the power of conflict!) Do they all get their wishes fulfilled? Not if you’re looking for readers.

Have your characters arguing to bring out their personality. This is the fundamental turning point in my newest novel. So glad to hear it works!

Your character should be visible from the silhouette. How interesting might this be? Be careful, though. This can get out of hand fast.

“Write what bubbles up.” It’s an old line, but it still makes sense to follow your muse.

Use popular names during the decades in which they live. Check census records, and the like for authenticity.

By the way, another tip I liked also surfaced. If a gun is seen in chapter one, it must be fired by chapter four.

The panelists were Dash Shaw, a cartoonist and author of Bottomless Bellybutton. (Boy, was this kid ever interesting.)  Frankie Bailey, author of Wicked Albany: Lawlessness and Liquor in the Prohibition Era and Scott Nelson, author of Ain’t Nothing but a Man.

I do hope these tidbits have proved useful and I would appreciate it if you would send in your own tips on this subject.

Until my next post, I wish you best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

  1. Excellent tips on building strong characterization. This blog can definitely benefit all writers.

  2. […] A to Z Challenge Theme: Quotes from Authors and Bookish People about Writing   We’re off to a great start on the A to Z and I’m continuing with my mad rush of visiting other blogs! Today, I continue my theme with one of the most important skills of writing fiction: characterization. […]

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