How to Use Characterization
So you’re writing a story, and you want to tell the reader about your protagonist. Where to begin?
- Before you can characterize your character, you need to know them yourself. Try to work up a mental image of your character, and use it to figure out their biographical data, like their age and where they’re from. That having been said, this is just the outer-shell of any character. But it’s important to start somewhere.
- You can learn a lot about someone from examining—or inventing—their background, and many writers structure the background around this mental image of the character. What kind of childhood did your character have? How did they end up where they are today? The past is an important factor in anyone’s present situation, even if they’ve fought to get away from it.
- Once you have the biographical information and background, you can begin examining the even deeper questions, like what they really want out of life, how they see themselves, and what role they play in the world. These are the parts of characterization that really make us fall in love, or hate, with a hero or a villain.
- Now you’ll want to find concrete, or real, ways to express these parts of the character. Calling a woman “the most beautiful” tells us a very little bit, because “beauty” isn’t concrete; there are many different opinions on it. But if you say that the woman has skin made bright with a chalky white powder, and a large mole on her cheek, we get a much clearer picture. Use the different methods discussed to express these concrete details about your character:
- their behavior (including the way their body moves)
- their words
- their appearance (including their possessions and the way they treat those possessions), and
- the way other characters feel about them, both directly (explicitly) and indirectly (implicitly).
When to Use Characterization
According to one of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules to writing fiction, “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” Unless your story is non-stop explosions and car chases, you’re probably going to spend at least half of your story on characterization.
Ideally, sentences reveal character and advance the action, in which case, one hundred percent of your story is characterization. A common review of well-loved novels, shows, and movies, is that the characters are so real. That’s the result of constant, honest, logical, and concrete characterization. In fiction, we should always be characterizing because readers want to relate to realistic characters, even if they are from fantastical worlds.