Browsing the archives for the characterization tag.
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What Makes Characters Riveting?


I’ve been thinking about the question of what makes a good fictional character, and the result is this list of ways characters can draw readers’ interests, which I hope you’ll find useful.

There seem to be some basic requirements for characters that aren’t as much about drawing readers to them as about the character being workable at all, things like having flaws, actively pursuing goals, being vulnerable in some way, and being believable (at least in the context of the story). My list below is not so much about these things, which we might consider the character basics, but about the more difficult and touchy job of creating a character that pops off the page or that readers love.

With that said, my fictional success isn’t yet to the point where I can claim that all of my characters do this, so certainly you can take this list with a grain of salt.

So what I came up with when I dug into this question was five categories of things that get and keep readers interested in a character. They aren’t entirely exclusive of one another, but they seem to be helpful categories. They are:

1. sympathy (we like the character)
2. attention (we want to see what the character will do next)
3. entertainment (we enjoy seeing the character in action)
4. admiration (we aspire to be like the character), and
5. identification (we feel like the character reflects ourselves)

It’s likely that there are some other methods or even an entire category or two I’ve missed, but this list should be useful at least as a starting point.

By the way, I give a character for each of the below as an example of that item, but I’m not suggesting that the item in question is the only or even necessarily the primary thing that’s interesting about that particular character, just that the character is an example of that item in action.

* Suffering through something undeserved (Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
* Makes a sacrifice for someone else’s good (Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities)
* Consistently kind to others even when mistreated (Little Orphan Annie in the Little Orphan Annie comic, etc.)
* Extremely loyal (Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings)
* Highly principled (Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird)
* Not consistently nice, but sometimes willing to put real effort into being kind or friendly (Greg House in the TV series House)

* Mysterious (Lestat in Interview with the Vampire)
* Trying really hard to accomplish something difficult (Hazel in Watership Down)
* Extremely resourceful, whether well-intentioned or not (Tom Sawyer in Tom Sawyer)
* Unique, fascinating, or exotic (Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear in The Golden Compass)
* Very powerful, whether in politics, money, physical prowess, etc. (Darth Vader in Star Wars)

* Eccentric, unpredictable, fun to watch (Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribean)
* Willing to say things most people would only think (Sherlock Holmes in the modern movie and TV adaptations–I can’t comment on the originals, not having read them for a long time)
* Witty or intentionally entertaining (Bartimaeus in The Amulet of Samarkand)
* Strongly identifiable and partly–but not entirely–predictable (Homer Simpson in the TV series The Simpsons)

* Great at something (Zorro in various movies)
* Wise or knowledgeable (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings)
* Unflappable; impossible to keep down (Lyra in The Golden Compass)

* Struggling with issues we can identify with, whether successful or not (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye)
* Feels like a stand-in for the reader (Bella Swan in Twilight)

Of course, many of the best characters hit multiple points above.

As an exercise, it can be useful to think of a character you love from a book, movie, or television show, consider whether one or more of the above applies strongly to that character, and decide for yourself whether or not that has much to do with why you like the character. Recently I’ve been watching the excellent BBC series Masterpiece: Downton Abbey, and I was interested to realize that as I made this list, various characters from that show popped into my head without me even trying.

A more potent exercise: take a piece of your writing–or even someone else’s writing–in which there’s a character who doesn’t really stand out, and go through this list to find one or two of the above items that you can use to punch the character up. What are your results?

I’d appreciate your comments, additions, protests, and so on.


Slowflake: Structure vs Diving In


In recent posts like “A Novel in One Sentence” I’ve mentioned that I’m trying out the Snowflake method for writing my current novel. This is a much more deliberate and structured way to go about it than I’ve ever used before (although I have outlined large writing projects in the past), and in a way is an experiment in doing something in a structured way when I could have chosen just to dive in instead.

Is all this structure helping? So far, absolutely yes. In step 1 I got a clear picture of what my novel is really about, which is extremely useful. Step 2 forced me to figure out the major turns in the story and my ending. The ending especially was difficult to see, but now that I’ve gotten an idea of what it will be I find I have more confidence in the book, and I have an important bit of planning done in a way that will allow it to do a lot of good.

I’m currently on Step 3, and it’s taking me forever. Why? Because I have to have all of my characters fleshed out in some major respects here in Step 3. I’m used to my characters either appearing full-fledged in my mind or to getting to know them through writing them. They often surprise me and step in to become much more interesting than anything I could have planned out. (I’m not a fan of the “come up with all kinds of detailed information about your character” approach because I feel like this focuses things on trivia and not on the character’s personality and driving needs, but your mileage may vary.)

I have to admit, though, stopping and figuring out some basic questions about each character (as distinct from trivial details) forces me to have a whole set of characters with goals, needs, and perspectives from the beginning. Also, I have little details that would be annoying and distracting to come up with as I write taken care of: for instance, I’m spending the time up front figuring out names for each character, which are something that have to feel exactly right for me to write them well.

Despite all of these benefits, I still am itching to just start writing the book. It’s writing fiction, after all, not planning it, that is the delight and the meat of the task for me. I’m frankly not sure I’ll last through the rest of the snowflake steps, especially considering that step 7, for instance, is about cataloging all of those character details I don’t much care for. At what point does a useful structure become too confining and get in the way of going organically forward?

From the point of view of the quality of the book, I’m not sure how long I should ideally stick with the structure, though I am sure that at a certain point I want to be able to plunge into the story and live there: I don’t want to construct every shoe and blade of grass and drop of blood first and then fit everything together like a jigsaw. At some point I’ll want to have some forward motion.

Yet when that point comes, I suspect I’ll be very glad that I stuck to structuring as long as I did. I guess we’ll see.

Photo by Juliancolton2

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Six Superpowers of Description


I was reading a manuscript–a very good one–from a friend recently, and it struck me that most of her descriptions were very straightforward. Common nouns are described with common adjectives, and similes and metaphor are not widely used. To some extent we can argue that this is stylistic, that “dark suit” or “white hair” are perfectly serviceable descriptions (which they are), and that nothing is needed. But this style got me thinking about description and the various jobs it can do, and I was surprised to come up with six. I’m sure there are more than six major things description can accomplish, but six will do for us, for now.

The reason this kind of insight might be useful is that as writers, we may be missing some wonderful opportunities when we use description for only one or two things. In other words, description has some skills that we can put to use, and if we’re aware of those skills, our writer’s toolbox gains some new implements.

It’s true that we can describe things indirectly through action, as well, but for the purposes of this article I’ll deal mainly with explicit description.

Superpower 1: Depiction

This is the obvious and arguably most important job description can accomplish. If we say only “Van came into the room and stepped up onto the couch,” we barely can picture what’s going on, and might be lacking key details that would matter to us. His standing on the couch will matter more if his boots are dirty, or if it’s an old couch, or if he does it carefully versus roughly. “Van came into the dusty room and stood on the broken, dirt-colored couch” gives us a very different picture than “Van came into the parlor, which was as quiet and clean as a church before services, and stepped up onto the cream-colored fabric of the couch.”

There’s always the trap of getting bogged down in unnecessary details, or the worse trap of bloating your writing with too many adjectives, but that’s a different issue and worth talking about separately. For the purposes of Superpower 1, it’s enough to know that our writing becomes more specific and real if we’re using description to depict.

Superpower 2: Evocation

Description can also transcend mere depiction and evoke a response from the reader that will take a long step forward in making the story feel more real and meaningful. Evocation is the art of describing or hinting things in such a way that the entire situation comes to life by comparison with a similar situation the reader has already encountered. Description can only show us specific, limited details of specific things. Evocation, by contrast, causes the reader to draw on her or his own experiences to fill in a huge number of details. It’s much more difficult, but much more powerful when it works.

As an example, above we just talked about a dusty room. If we can instead talk about Van sweeping away cobwebs that cling invisibly to his sleeve, pushing a warped door open with a squawk and doused in a smell like a basement that has been given over entirely to spiders and centipedes, we may be able to evoke in the reader enough connections that the old parlor in the abandoned house will come alive with their own memories of basements or attics or neglected rooms.

Simile (a door as warped as a potato chip) and metaphor (a metropolis of spiders) can be powerful tools here when used well.

Superpower 3: Characterization

Description can give us an additional tool in characterization, not just in describing the outward character (which would already be covered in depiction and evocation), but in skewing the perception of what’s around us through the eyes of the viewpoint character. If Van walks into a room in an abandoned house and we describe the room as “as dead and secret as Tutankhamen’s tomb”, this implies that Van either has a sense of adventure or expects to find something worth finding in the room. If we describe it as “like his grandmother’s parlor might be if it were left to its own devices for twenty years”, this can give us a completely different sense of the character. Using description this way can be useful to suggesting the character’s immediate state of mind, the character’s general proclivities, or both.

Superpower 4: Foreshadowing

Description also gives us an opportunity to steer our reader a little, to raise expectations or provide suspense or misdirect or hint at what interesting things are yet to come. While our job as writers is not to manipulate the reader, it is our job to provide an experience crafted to be interesting and compelling and to suggest certain directions, and description can help in this. If we talk about the room Van enters as “aching with a strained silence,” this suggests to us that something will soon break that silence. If we say that the floor groans and a snapping noise comes from somewhere deeper in the room, we begin to worry about how sound the building is and whether it will collapse on Van.

Superpower 5: Flagging

Description can also be used as a flag to mark something as important. If Van walks into a store and asks a question of a “a cashier engrossed in a magazine,” the lack of detail suggests that the cashier isn’t important and will not be playing a large part in the story. If instead, though, we talk about a slim, spiky-haired girl hunched over a half-crumpled copy of the National Enquirer, readers are likely to pay a little more attention to her and be comfortable with her assuming a larger part in the story.

With that said, good description is sometimes useful to simply add color, entertainment, verisimilitude, tone, or other features to the story. The reader doesn’t necessary expect that the cashier has to have an important part in the story if we single her out for a moment; it’s just an additional option. If she later turns out to be important after not appearing for a long time, though, we will have made a much stronger impression and the reader will be much more likely to remember her and enjoy her reappearance if we’ve described her well initially.

Superpower 6: Style

Finally (at least as regards my list of description’s powers), description can be used as a tool above and outside the story. This is a bit of a dangerous approach in some ways, since it means that the author is putting the experience of reading ahead of the experience of the story. Therefore, this can be an entirely bad choice, and by and large it should be done either for the whole story or not at all, since in a story that is otherwise delivered in as transparent a way as possible, a way that puts the reader there in the events, authorial intrusion yanks the reader out and damages that experience.

With that said, some writers (Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain leap to mind) make a carnival of description, using it as much to show off entertainingly as to push the story along. If we describe a character as looking like a “goat’s butt, with his sad little tuft of forehead hair serving for a tail”, that could potentially be amusing, and if description of that kind is delivered consistently, the reader could find it very satisfying. In the first paragraph of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a house that “was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.”

Stylistic description seems to be most useful for humor, but it can also be used for commentary, whether on specific situations or on the human condition. It can also be used in conjuction with the characterization power to make a highly enjoyable, sympathetic first person narrator.


I’ll leave it there for today. In closing, I’ll repeat that I don’t think these are necessarily the only powers description has to offer, and I’ll add a caveat that not all six of these powers may be ones that you necessarily should use. Style is the clearest example of a descriptive power that may be best reserved for certain writers or certain types of writing, but it may not fit your style either, for instance, to foreshadow or characterize with description. With that said, I’d urge you to experiment with all six powers to see if any of them might suit you despite being underrepresented in your writing so far.

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