This Business of Writing

Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

10 Tips to Reveal Your Character’s Character

In The Craft of Writing on March 3, 2010 at 7:18 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to the podcast of this article HERE.

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One of the three primary secrets to any good novel is effective characterization. The others, of course, are story and dialogue. Without populating your novel with characters the reader will appreciate, there is little chance your novel will succeed. This is not to say a great deal more isn’t necessary to write The Great American Novel, but without this, you’ve got no story.

Your reader needs to become acquainted with your main characters to identify with them and I’ve worked up a list of ten basic steps by which you develop your character’s. They are:

1. The character’s physical description
2. The author’s psychological portrayal of that character
3. What the character says
4. How the character says what he says
5. What the character does
6. What the character thinks
7. The things other characters say about him
8. His reactions to things, people and events around him
9. His how he reacts to himself
10. Your setting

Presenting this type of information all at once is frowned upon in the writing world. So much so, that action has a rather unpleasant sounding name assigned to it. That name is, “Info-dump.” Therefore, for best effect, you’d want to sprinkle these situation around in the pages of your story.

I’m certain you can see how most of these techniques will highlight your character’s personality. After all, isn’t that much the way things work in real life? Regardless, let’s toss in a couple of examples

You’d not want to use only one or two of these techniques and shun the rest. Utilize a number of them for wider appeal

A premier “rule” in creative writing it to “show, don’t tell.” Of course, rules are designed for breaking, but with that in mind, you’d want to shy away from the first item, their physical description, and the second, the authors’ psychological portrayal, as they tend to, “tell.”

As an example of the third item, what he says, in my current manuscript my hero, Jak, is working with a crew to cut down trees. When one wood behemoth refuses to fall, Jak say, “I’ve yet to be bested by an overgrown log.” When I had my critique group read that chapter, a couple of the reviewers mentioned that line and said it told them so much about Jak’s personality. So, the words your character uses are powerful indicators of his individuality.

Let’s give number seven, those things one character says about another, some consideration, too. I think this type of character embellishment allows for interesting opportunities in your novel. It opens the door to misdirection, deception and all sorts and other opportunities to enhance and even introduce plot points into your manuscript. If you possess the imagination, this technique has twists and turns hidden within it, and you can utilize them to great effect.

There’s one of these techniques many authors don’t understand well, so I’ll give it a bit of special attention. Consider number ten, your setting. Setting is much more to your novel than simply a place and time. It is as powerful as any component of your novel and can shape your characters to a great degree. So, too, it gives strong hints as to their personalities. For example, compare a warrior living in the second century to one living in the twenty-first. Don’t you think they’ll have differing outlooks toward war, even though that theme transcends both time frames? Give your setting serious consideration as part of the development of your characters. You can read more about setting in this ARTICLE.

Review these techniques and employ them throughout your novels, and you’ll find your readers become more involved with your characters.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”


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4 Steps to Character Development

In The Craft of Writing on February 16, 2010 at 8:13 am

We all realize one of the most critical components in the craft of writing any novel is its characters. Without effective characterization, the chance of penning a successful novel approaches zero. Therefore, I spend much of my writing time creating those people who will populate my manuscripts. Personally, I use a four-step process for developing my characters.

These four steps are:

  1. 1. Summarize the type of character needed for the story
  2. 2. Find a photo of that person
  3. 3. Interview my main characters
  4. 4. Review my character’s reactions during the editing process

First, I jot down the basic characteristics I’ll need for my hero, villain and any love interest. I focus more on their personality than physical characteristics and I try to envision how this person I’m creating will react to situations I already imagine will occur in the story.

I sort of feel this person out and makes notes as my mind wanders between the character and the story. Other writers fill in formal note cards or databases, many types of which you can find on the Internet. It matters not how you gather this information, but knowing my characters’ personalities before I craft them helps me flesh them out as I write.

Next I locate, cut out and paste up photos of my characters. I physically mount their faces, and if necessary to the story, full body photos of my people. I pay very close attention to the look in their eyes, for I need specific personality types, and the eyes are the harbinger of this. I might take hours upon hours to find the perfect pictures, but when I have them, I paste these photos on a piece of poster board and keep it on my desk as I write. Early in the writing process, I refer to these photos often, especially when I write dialogue, which I think is one of the secrets to effective dialogue. As I become more familiar with the characters as individuals, I refer to their photos less and less, but still keep the mounting board on my desk as I write.

Third, I interview my characters. Yes, it is a formal interview as if I’m speaking to someone for a magazine article. By now I’ve developed a basic storyline so I ask them questions that relate to my story. For example, in an early manuscript, my heroine learned her husband died in battle and she traveled to the field to find his remains. (It was common in the era in which I write.) So, I asked her, “Lorena, it’s late at night and you’ve wandered over this horrid field with a lantern for hours. You’ve just found your husband, dead on the battlefield. How would you react to this?” I allow my instincts about this character to answer for me. If I don’t get an answer that can translate into an effective scene, I consider altering the scene and/or characterization of this person. By the time I’ve reviewed most of my story’s major plot points as they relate to my major characters, I’ve got a firm visualization of who my characters are and how I’ll write about them in my manuscript.

Finally, as I edit my work I study how my characters reacted to the various situations in which I’ve placed them. Did they respond according to the  personality I’ve given them? Did they act as expected? If not, what has to change, the scene, the character or both? The situations in which my characters find themselves have often morphed into something quite different than I’d visualized in my first draft. I consider it imperative to insure my character’s have adapted to these new situations in a fashion consistent with their personalities.

My manuscripts are character-driven and this four-step process insures those people I create mesh with my plot points and storyline without issue.

Are there other techniques or tips you use to create your characters? Let me know and I’ll post them, with appropriate credit, of course.

Until then, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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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