I’m about to make a distinction that is bound to be argued with, disagreed with and flat out rejected but, nevertheless, I’m going ahead because I think it’s useful, especially for beginning writers.
Character is one of the vital aspects of storytelling – this isn’t the controversial bit, by the way, that comes later – and without engaging characters a story is in trouble. That’s why so many writing workshops recommend spending time on compiling character profiles before starting a story.
I’m not going to disagree with this practice. Thinking about a character’s attributes, personality and back story is extremely useful, but there comes a point when a writer asks: ‘How do I let a reader know all this stuff that I know about this character?’
And that’s where we get to the important distinction I want to make. Character is all that stuff you, the writer, know. Characterisation, on the other hand, is how you sneakily, subtly, artfully get it into your story so your reader can learn about your character.
See the difference?
The most straightforward way of characterisation would be to insert your character profile/dossier into your story, perhaps as an introduction or a compulsory appendix. Straightforward, perhaps, but an eye-glazingly bad idea. Doing so would kill any narrative.
I suggest that there are six major ways to do characterisation, to weave details of character into your story without weighing it down. If you use these methods, your reader will gradually accumulate an understanding of your character, almost without knowing she/he is doing it. Some (most?) of these are obvious, but others might take more explanation.
- Characterisation through Physical Description
- Characterisation through Action
- Characterisation through Reaction
- Characterisation through Interaction
- Characterisation through Dialogue
- Characterisation through Thoughts.
Characterisation through Physical Description
This is, perhaps, one of the more obvious methods of characterisation. When done ham-fistedly, it descends into cliché or, even worse, becomes a lazy shortcut. Think of all the evil-looking villains with their black hair, moustaches and goatees, the heroic-looking heroes with their noble jaws and mighty thews, the intelligent-looking scientists with their bald eggheads and glasses. With more thought, though, small physical details can be priceless aspects of characterisation. A mason’s hands, especially the nails. A dancer’s high-arched feet. A weather beaten face.
Characterisation through Action
This one is sometimes overlooked, particularly in more contemplative writing, but this is the essence of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ dictum. ‘By their deeds, ye shall know them’ is something worth taking to heart. And, naturally, by ‘action’ I don’t necessarily mean Big Screen CGI Enhanced Action, although a reader can learn a great deal about a character who risks herself while in a hostage situation to disarm the bomb and save people she really doesn’t like.
Actions can be small, character defining actions like the way someone drives a car, or perpetual fidgets, or the characteristic(!) way someone answers the phone. Actions, and particularly spontaneous actions, can and should reveal details about a character.
Characterisation through Reaction
There’s a good reason for much of what Hollywood does, although after sitting through The Lone Ranger I do wonder. One thing that Hollywood does get right is the Reaction Shot. When something significant happens (an explosion in a shopping mall, a major statement about the status of a relationship) the camera always cuts to a reaction shot. We’re shown the effect that the significant event has.
As in Hollywood, so in your story (sometimes). When something important/significant/moving happens, spend some time focussing on your character and exploring the effect it has had on her/him. Your reader will gain insight when the mother is told that the baby isn’t hers – if the readers get the Reaction Shot.
Characterisation through Interaction
How your character treats people or relates to people can help define her/him. If he/she is kind, overbearing, oblivious or manipulative, this provides the reader with a look into what’s inside. Of course, your character’s external interactions can be in conflict with her/his internal desires, but that’s not a bad thing, either.
Characterisation through Dialogue
Dialogue is good, because that’s what people do – they talk.
Dialogue is a vital part of characterisation. Characterisation through dialogue works in three ways: through what is said, through how it’s said and through the way the character’s conversation works with the other people involved.
What is being said (the content) is fairly straightforward. Your character is always asking for favours. Your character always speaks about him/herself. Your character is constantly making empty threats. All these are a giveaway as to the sort of person she/he is.
How your character talks is a classic and can be vital in characterisation: the tone, phrases that belong just to him/her, the length of sentences, the rhythm of utterances. Consider all these and you’ll be on the way to deft characterisation through dialogue.
Conversation. This, really, is another aspect of Characterisation through Interaction (above). Does your character interrupt? Does your character ask open questions? Is your character hesitant to speak up in a group?
Characterisation through Thoughts
Readers often learn about a character through their internal monologue. First person narratives are full of this, but third person narratives can also use this technique. What a character thinks, or questions, in the privacy of her/his own skull let us understand their motivations, desires and wishes.
Two words of warning, though. Firstly, watch out that you don’t get too obvious here and start telling your reader all sorts of things. Lead your reader, don’t hit him/her on the head with a hammer. Secondly, I get tired of extended internal monologues that are actually thinly disguised author intrusions where the writer is making damn sure that the readers don’t miss something. It’s clumsy, and it’s also unnatural. People don’t think like that! Rarely do we construct long, uninterrupted, philosophical/political/mystical internal ponderings. Thoughts are fleeting, wandering, fragmentary and distracted – not really the stuff of coherent storytelling.
Of course, all of the above is advice and, like all writing advice it isn’t meant to be comprehensive. Many other characterisation techniques are available. And, equally obviously, this advice needs to be implemented judiciously. If you try to do all of this you’ll overburden your reader – and you’ll slow your story down until it grinds to a halt. Be clever, be adroit, be nimble and your characters will be better off for it.