How To Write Compelling Fictional Characters - Notes On Characterization
When I think of a great fictional character, what immediately comes to mind is Gyp Rosetti of Boardwalk Empire, played by Bobby Cannavale. Gyp is a hot-headed gangster prone to outbursts and violence who runs his team with an iron fist. He has high aspirations, hoping to one day take over Nucky Thompson’s territory. The viewer comes to know this man as someone to fear, which makes it quite the surprise when we get to a particular scene with his mother-in-law and wife.
During the scene, we see Gyp’s matriarchal influences in his life openly berate and mock him, treating him as a buffoon and a coward. For me, what I saw on the screen was a character come to life before my eyes. What was once one dimensional, became complex and full of layers. He was still the bad guy, sure, but he also had his own insecurities, fears, and emotions. To me, he became more than a character, he became real.
Now that’s characterization, I thought. And it’s an exercise that would serve any writer to perform: how would your character act during a dinner with their family?
It’s also the type of deep analysis that should go into developing just about all of your main and supporting characters.
Why do so many writers write flat characters?
When I first started writing, my main focus was on two things: the writing and the story. I thought smart, technical writing and an original, mind-blowingly creative idea were the pinnacles of good fiction. What I didn’t realize is that good characters—characters that appear to be real people— were really what I was falling in love with.
That’s because the driving force of a good book is character. Good writing and an original plot are simply vehicles for the reader to explore that character.
In a way, the character I was putting into my stories was, in essence, myself in another’s clothing. I had a hard time picturing my characters as anyone but me and for a time, I thought that was okay—and to be honest, I still think it was okay. That was a time of learning.
But the problem is I’m not those characters because I haven’t lived the life of those characters, so I’m not giving a true account of who those characters really are, and in turn, am not giving a true account of what those characters would do given the circumstances of the story I have laid out for them.
So if you really want to write fiction, you must first write great characters. But how? I think a great character should have at least 4 things mapped out: their physical characteristics, their distinct voice, their peculiar (and particular) habits, and their needs and wants.
The Physical Characteristics Of Great Characters In Fiction
The physical characteristics of a character is something that every writer nearly gets, because it is a requirement for a reader to have some image in their head of what your character looks like.
But simply stating some baseline physical characteristics of your character will not cut it. What I want to know is what makes them aesthetically unique. What makes them stand out?
In my last review of Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, I talked about just that. When we’re introduced to Jean’s step mother, we get this detail: “Beatrice’s tongue is pinned to the floor of her mouth owing to some childhood incident involving a pencil, so you only ever see the pristine pink tip of it.”
That’s what I’m talking about when I think of great physical characteristics that make that character stand out and yell at the reader, “HELLO! I’M A REAL PERSON OUT WHO EXISTS OUT IN THE REAL WORLD!”
After a detail like that, I’m hooked, I’m in, and I’m listening. My brain knows what I’m reading is fiction, but at the same time, a physical detail like that allows me to suspend my belief for the time being, because you’ve sold me on the reality of the character.
So when you’re writing your short story or novel or novella, ask yourself: what’s something about this character that makes them wholly unique? Maybe they have a lazy eye, cauliflower ears, one eyebrow that’s slightly higher than the other or an arm that’s shorter due to a head on collision with a bus that snapped their collar bone in two.
Explore them and understand them, even if you’re not going to relay that information to your reader.
A big part of this exercise is that you, the author, understands what makes your character unique.
Distinct Voice - What Do Your Characters Sound Like?
While writing my upcoming novel, What We Do On Weekends, I started to notice that my main character and the main supporting character’s voice would meld together. This was a problem because they weren’t anything alike.
That’s when I asked myself what do they sound like? Who do they sound like? And I usedthree to four words to describe their speech patterns, vocabulary, and intellectual capacity. I then found about five reference novels and movies which I thought they might sound like.
From there, I wrote down lines or quotes that I thought my character might say, or could have the capacity to say, from which to differentiate the two. After that I believe I had a solid grasp on how my characters sound and how to make them both distinct.
This felt worthwhile enough to me to then do describe each of my character’s voices, no matter how big or small a part they played (except for reading and watching five reference pieces). I wanted to keep myself mentally in check for their voice and make sure I wasn’t veering into my own writerly voice.
What’s also interesting is that while doing this exercise, I started to see my characters more clearly in my mind’s eye. I could now, without much effort, see their physical movements and unique mannerisms when they talked. It was an interesting and worthwhile experiment to complete.
If nothing else, I would recommend it for your main character and first supporting character.
Habits - What Do They Do When The Reader Isn’t Looking?
These are the little things that your character does when the reader isn’t watching (and some when the reader is) that make them a fully formed, functional human—even if they’re not. This includes what the character likes to watch on television, how (and why) they’ve decided to decorate their home, how they walk, if they brush their teeth once, twice, or never, what they eat for dinner, if they make their bed in the morning and so on.
It’s the small idiosyncrasies of your character that make a reader stop and go intuitively “oh, I’m reading about a real person who did real things” even when their logic is telling them that that isn’t true. It’s allowing them to take a moment to suspend their believe and believe the author.
What you want these habits—strategically revealed (or not revealed) to the reader—to show is who the character really is. Are they messy? Then they don’t do their dishes. Are they excessively particular? Then perhaps they organize their clothing by colour, fabric, and type. Are they angry? Maybe there’s holes in the wall of their apartment.
What you’re trying to do is show the reader who your character is without telling them. That’s effective characterization.
What Does Your Character Want? What Do they Need?
This is probably the most important aspect of understanding your character. Every single person, real or fictional, has both a want and a need in their life. On a micro level, I, at the moment I’m writing this, want some ice cream. But I need to abstain from sugar, finish this article, and go to bed.
At the beginning of your story, your character’s wants should be apparent, but the need should be the driving force of your story. A character might want to find out who killed their brother, but they need to find redemption or closure over the death of a loved one.
Understanding both your character’s need and want is crucial to understanding both your story and your character.
But it’s not just your main character who has a need and a want. In It’s A Long Way Down, my debut novel, I wrote below each character’s name, whether they were in the novel for a page, or ten or twenty, both what they wanted and needed.
I wanted to understand what each character, underneath what they saying on the surface, were really getting at. I wanted to know what script that character handed to them (which reminds me of that scene from Synecdoche, New York where Caden says “every person is a character in their own play”).
A Word On A Character’s Dialogue
I was reading Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing and he brought up an interesting dialogue exercise from “Inside The Actor’s Studio.” During a rehearsal, actors would be given two separate scripts with different lines of dialogue on it. Often, you’d get a conversation that mirrored real life more than if you gave them the same script.
In a way that’s how you should approach your characters. When we’re having a conversation in real life, we’re two people with two different scripts in our heads. We don’t have the same goal in mind, which is often the case by the novice writer. They’re trying to steer the conversation into a single direction with a single outcome, but characters (and people) don’t converse like that.
Ask yourself what your character is trying to accomplish by what they’re trying to say. Make them agents of their own futures, with their own thoughts, desires, needs, and wants.
Exercises To Explore Your Characters
I generally don’t find “exercises” in any other part of writing particularly useful, except when it comes to understanding the full depths of your characters. That’s probably because a lot of what makes a character real will never make it onto the page, but it’s work that is necessary for you, the author, to understand them fully and reveal the pieces of them that do matter with a skilled, delicate hand.
Here are some of my favourites:
Do a full interview of them and ask them about religion, politics, life, love, purpose, and all the big questions you can think of.
How do they act around their parents? Their wife? Their boss?
Make two of your characters who like (or love) each other argue, while still letting the reader know that they do like (or love) each other.
What was their birth like?
What would their death be like?
What happens to the character 5 years after your story?
What happened 5 years before?
What are they like on a blind date?
What was the first job they ever had?
What is the job they retire from?