Wednesday, May 14, 2008


© Marta Stephens, 2008 all rights reserved

Characterization is one aspect of writing that most authors struggle with at one time or another. So where do you start? Let’s say you’ve determined who your character is, what he/she looks like. The writer needs to take it a step further -- find a way to make the character as real for the reader as the person standing next to them.

The writer will use description, action and dialogue as the base methods to build characterization. Through description, the writer tells something about the character such as height, eye/hair color, and disposition.

Mary, the slender brunette on the third seat of the bus, looked distraught.

Hmmm. Okay. A better way to describe a character, however, is through their actions and through dialogue. Both of these methods will give the reader a more vivid image of the character than description alone. Add description to action and dialogue and the character has the potential to jump off the page.

Mary raised a slender, shaky finger to her eyes. Tears moistened the strand of dark hair that fell onto her face. She leaned her head against the window and stared at nothing. The world was passing her by as quickly as the ramshackle buildings that blurred past her — no one knew her pain, no one cared.

“You okay back there?” The driver asked.

She didn’t look up or answer. What was the point? In less than an hour’s time, it would all be over.

Now we can see a minute into Mary’s state of mind. We see her crying, something is weighing heavily on her mind, she feels alone, and whatever is going through her thoughts will be resolved one way or another in less than an hour. Is this enough to make the reader care and turn the page? A story may have a killer plot, but the manner in which a character is portrayed will have a greater impact on readers’ reaction than anything else. If a character is weak, will anyone care if he drives his car off the cliff?

How often have we read reviews that indicated the reader couldn’t “fall in love” with the character? Is it necessary to fall in love with Mary’s character to sympathize with her? For me, the word “love” is a bit strong when used to describe a character. However, I do want to care what happens to her, why it happened, and hopefully see her resolve her problems in a positive, uplifting manner. Maybe a better word is “connect.” The goal of any writer should be to draw the reader in and get him/her to connect emotionally with the character(s) and the story. And so the choice between describing a character and allowing the reader to see, hear, and feel the character is the difference between "show" and "tell." When we "tell" we involve the reader intellectually (they have to think about what is being communicated). When we "show" we involve the reader emotionally – that’s the key.

In other words, the character has to hit a nerve with the reader on a very basic level --touch the reader emotionally so the reader can connect with them and that usually includes letting the reader see the character's flaws. What's more important though is that the reader has to be able to see the character grow and overcomes those problems.

Maybe what that reviewer, editor or agent means by needing to "fall in love with the character" is the desire to see a small part of him- or herself in a particular character. First they have to know the character thoroughly and next be able to identify with him/her. When the reader is able to identify with a character's plight, problem, weaknesses, strengths, etc., he/she will find themselves sympathizing with them and cheering them on to a successful finish. This will give the reader a reason to follow a character through the rest of the book.

Description, action and dialogue are effective methods to create characterization. How a writer uses and combines them is a matter of style largely determined by the needs of the story.

Marta Stephens is a crime mystery/suspense author of SILENCED CRY (2007) published by BeWriter Books (UK). Look for THE BLACK PEARL later this year.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Excellent topic, Marta! And so well done. I loved your example. Characters are what always brings me back to a story. You know how much I love your Sam Harper and his father, Walter; and his girlfriend, Jennie. To me, this is what hooks me on a series. I want to know what happens to the characters in the future, and what happened in their pasts. I have a burning desire to know every little detail about them.

And in this respect, I'm trying to do the same thing with my LeGarde Mystery series and Moore Mysteries. I don't think I'll stop until I've fully documented every year of Gus LeGarde and Sam Moore's lives! LOL!

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks Aaron. Just as we want to get to know everything about a new friend, so too with our characters. So by all means, document, document, document.

You are one of four people who have read the next in the Harper series, "The Black Pearl." You know the ending? I was just thinking last night what if ... ;)It might make for an interesting short story, wouldn't you say?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Mmmm. Yes! I think it would be a lovely short story. Better yet --- why don't you post us some excerpts from either book in the near future?

Marta Stephens said...

I can post the excerpt from Silenced Cry -- maybe next week?? I'll post one from The Black Pearl as soon as I get the official "okay." ;)

Julie Ann Shapiro said...

Excellent points and insight!
You should make a book featuring these essays.


Marta Stephens said...

Thanks Julie. Glad you found this useful!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Marta - glad you'll post excerpts soon! And Julie has a good point - these essays would make a nice handbook for writers!

Marta Stephens said...

Hmmm. I'll have to move a few things off that back burner. :)