Put on your character like a shroud. When you write in that character, you ARE that character, at almost a microscopic level. You find out everything about that character, like someone in witness protection or an undercover cop. You know that person so well, you ARE that person. 24/7/365. Almost to the point when a phone call comes in at work you answer “Good morning, this is Maleta, your avenging assassin nun. How may I help you today?” (Hedda’s Sword reference)
(No I’ve never done that.)
My goal is to get first-person close with third person voice.
The rule I try to stick by is:
Who has the most to fear/risk/lose in that scene? (The highest stakes?) THAT’s who the scene should showcase, so the reader can feel the tension and drama. Even-keeled safe characters are good for secondary supporters, but hero/heroine should need/change/grow. As mentioned regarding love scenes, the above applies to love scenes, also. The scene itself should be in the least secure’s POV, so the scene is a revelation—either makes things better…or worse. And then immediately switch to the other character for the aftermath.
Again, it’s unrelenting. You have to BE the character, every single moment. Now you know why multiple POVs can be so tricky. You have to totally change yourself, your background, your way of thinking, moving, reacting.
Watch Viggo Mortenson first as a dedicated dad in a postapocolyptic nightmare world in The Road, then a Navy SEAL instructor in G.I. Jane, then as a humble cowboy in Hidalgo and finally as a reluctant king but able warrior in LOTR. Same actor, four different characters & worlds.
Mixing It Up
Characters need to be consistent, and true to themselves, their own inner moral compass. But part of the fun is surprising the reader. Force the character to do the unexpected. Set up a scenario where a character has to do something they never thought they would – an HONEST character lies to protect someone else, etc. It also adds depth. BY taking the first answer that comes to you and throwing it out, you can add a twist that’s unexpected:
Say you have your soldier of fortune fall in love with your kindergarten teacher. But how different those POVs would be. They would even look at the red in a sunset differently. The teacher might think of the roses in her garden, the soldier would probably think “blood.” Or maybe not. Maybe the soldier thinks of the roses in his grandmother’s garden, and how much he misses her. Would she be proud of him or disappointed in him?
Unexpected twists like this add depth to your character, make him less stock cutout and more real-person. Give your hard, edgy character moments of softness. Give a soft, timid character a moment of strength.
Thoughts on Characterization In General
People are a product of their world—part genetics, part environment. We are born blank slates, with equal potential. Then we are molded into what we ultimately become. By people, circumstance, experience, training and choices. Our viewpoints, how we see the world around us, is colored by who and what we are. Children see the world differently than adults. A kindergarten teacher is going to view the world very differently than a soldier of fortune.
The best characters are as three-dimensional as real people, with the triviality stripped away. They are the best and the worst of the human race—sometimes in the same package. They have their own viewpoints, their own voice, that reflects who and what they are. They have strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and prejudices, assumptions and fears. For me characterization is interdependent on world-building, because the reader can only understand the characters if they can view the world around them.
Education & Training
Society & Family Placement/Position
Rewards & Punishments
Remember in the movie “City Slickers” when they were looking for that “one thing” Curly swore made the whole world make sense, but how it was different for each person?
And for Liam Neeson in the movie “Rob Roy” it was “honor”? Explaining “honor” to his sons. “Honor” was what he lived and (almost) died by. He expected others to live by the same code he did, and thus was hugely disappointed. But he was as straight and true a character as ever existed on screen. Because that single word, “honor” was soul-deep, ever-present.
Find ONE WORD to describe each of your characters. Tattoo it on their forehead. Never let them take it off. You’ll be surprised how that becomes a lens which colors EVERYTHING they view!
It’s just a way of always being able to check yourself on character consistency:
“But would a man of HONOR DO that?”
“But would an HONEST person SAY that?”
It doesn’t have to be “good”—lack of trust is a stellar trait that would affect everything she does. In my Hedda’s Sword, Maleta (the avenging assassin nun) is a rape survivor. The hero Cianan was only good for one thing—helping free her country, preferably from a great distance… That can totally work, because it definitely sets up a great character growth arc!
A character who’s aware of their trait can reflect on it, maybe even poke fun of themselves over it in quiet moments. A character who ISN’T aware would never think or discuss it, but would convey to the other characters and the reader through actions that the other characters could comment on and the reader would say “Of course, they’re ___”
Like a protector who always steps in front of a bully or a “bossy” who always tells people what to do.
It can also be darker, like a “heroic” who always picks the most dangerous rescues b/c he thinks he should have died instead of his friend, and is either unconsciously trying to prove himself worthy of life or, conversely, NOT worthy of life and is unconsciously trying to DIE but the fates have other ideas and won’t let him.
In my first romance Duality I got called out on naming a dance. I originally used the word “waltz” which has a very definitive Earth-history beginning. Since my world was pure high fantasy, I had my editor tell me to rename my dance. I renamed it “arelle” and she was happy. “Waltz” would have taken the reader right out of the fantasy.
Not good. Easy fix.
Then I made Dara unable to dance and have to learn. She was raised a peasant, a healer—they had no time for frivolity. When she learned Loren was a PRINCE, she worried about gowns, dances, what fork to use at dinner. Royalty and peasantry do not move in the same circles or use the same trappings.
Things never brought up in Cinderella. Things that WERE brought up in Princess Diaries 1 & 2. Because if your character wouldn’t know—don’t have them know. Have them learn. Have them worry about screwing up—and have them make mistakes. Let the reader relate to the humanity of your character.
THINK ABOUT HOW YOU CREATE YOUR CHARACTERS:
Everyone has their own way of developing characters. I’m not here to tell you WHAT to think or do or change anyone’s methodology. I’m just here to share my thoughts and suggestions for digging deeper, on ways to make your characters MORE human, for a closer reader connection. What works for me.
Things to consider:
How do your characters FIRST come into being? What draws YOU to them?
How do you know what makes them tick? What weird/unique quirks do they have?
How did they become their profession? Why did they choose to do what they do?
How did they wind up in the setting you put them in? Did they choose it or were they forced there by circumstance?
What do they: Know? Want? Need? Fear? Learn?
Why is their “other half” perfect for them? How do they challenge/push/grow?
What do you love about them? Hate about them?
What needs to change in order for them to have a HEA with each other?
My Personal Characterization Reference Library
I’m a total writing book junkie. And on my keeper shelf I have the following references for characterization that have come in handy:
I’ve got 3 books on characterization I swear by:
- 45 MASTER CHARACTERS: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters
- by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
- The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for BUILDING BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS
- by Marc McCutcheon
- WHAT WOULD YOUR CHARACTER DO? Personality Quizzes for Analyzing Your
- by Eric Maisel, Ph.D. & Ann Maisel
I also recommend: (LUV this one!)
- the RANDOM HOUSE WORD MENU (ISBN 0435414411) for getting
- various vocabulary and terminology right. – all different professions & hobbies listed, to sound more like an insider
- And I have A WORLD OF BABY NAMES by TERESA NORMAN that I use in order to
- get “related” names correct – cultural distinctness.
Adding to the list (from others’ recommendations):
- Bullies, Bastards,& Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page
- Understanding the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso.
- Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams by Laurie Schnebly