I taught a workshop on characterization over the weekend at the beautiful Gold Coast, and was thrilled to be able to meet the local writers and share some of the craft lessons I’ve learned through assessing over 200 manuscripts. At the end of the workshop, one piece of feedback I heard over and over was, “Thanks for giving us specifics to work on.”
On the drive home, I couldn’t help remembering the first time I’d had feedback on a story I’d written. The competition judge told me that my characterization was “thin”, and I remember feeling really confused, because to me, those characters were very real. I clearly had to do something, but I had no practical method of making my characterization stronger.
If only I could go back in time and tell that young writer what I know now!
Of course I can’t. But I can share my hard-earned craft tips with you: so the first and foremost (with both characterization and plotting) has to be Goal Motivation Conflict (or GMC as we call it in the trade).
Write this out for every main character in the story. I keep mine on a file card next to my computer so I can pull it out each time a character is about to step into a scene. I want to remind myself about what’s important to this character and why. Here are a few tips for filling it in:
1. Clarify in your own mind who your main CHARACTER is and give them the lion’s share of viewpoint in the novel (if it’s a two-hander, say a romance novel, give them equal share of the viewpoint). The more viewpoint a character has, the more their characterization develops through the Show Don’t Tell method.
2. Clarify early in the story what GOAL the character is trying to achieve, and ensure there are serious consequences (either physically or emotionally) if they are unsuccessful. This creates a high-stakes novel with a clear thread for the reader to follow through the story (NOTE: ensure all subplots either help or hinder the main character achieve their goal. If they don’t, the plot can feel loose and unfocused).
3. Create strong MOTIVATION for the character to pursue their goal. You’ll want to put obstacles in their path to create tension and reader empathy, but that will only work if readers believe in the character’s motivation to stick with the goal. The last thing you want is readers wondering “Why don’t they just go home?”
4. Create a balance of Internal (emotional) and External (physical) conflicts for your character to overcome on their way to the goal. The genre of your novel will dictate some of this balance. At one end of the spectrum, Romance novels are usually heavy on Internal Conflict, while Action Adventure tales tend to have much more External Conflicts and less emotional angsting.
My next tip is that CHARACTER TRAITS MUST SERVE A PURPOSE:
Yes, well, of course I’d prefer it if this picture actually had anything to do with the topic, but I suspect it’s simply a good looking man with no shirt on. The things you find while you’re looking for content…
Anyway. Character traits. Don’t invent virtues and flaws for your characters unless they’re going to serve a plot purpose. If you do, your novel will feel loose and unfocused. If a character’s virtue is honesty, put them in a situation where they’re forced to steal or lie (for some greater purpose, of course). The take home here is: A strong plotline tests the character’s virtues and highlights their flaws. Try not to forget that.
And my final tip on characterization is on VIEWPOINT, sometimes called Point of View. The more you are in a character’s viewpoint, the more readers will learn about the way they perceive the world (what they actually notice of the world around them), what their biases and preferences are, what emotional baggage they’re carrying, etc. When you are delivering the story from inside a character’s viewpoint, the character’s internal life becomes obvious via their internalizations (thoughts) which Show Don’t Tell us why they’re doing what they’re doing and saying what they’re saying.
When unimportant characters come into the story, don’t give them viewpoint unless you absolutely have to (they have a piece of information to deliver that we can’t find out from inside the main character’s viewpoint). The more you hand out viewpoint in a story, the more you dilute characterization. You can’t bond us to everyone, so make damn sure you use viewpoint to bond us to the main character/s!
If you don’t understand what Viewpoint is or how to do it, please learn! Viewpoint is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Learn it and use it carefully to craft your story.
I hope this is helps you develop your characterization. Naturally it doesn’t cover all the details I’d get across in a 2hr or a day workshop, but it should give you a few ideas to work with. If you have any questions, please feel free to pop them into the comments below. Cheers!