As a manuscript assessor with over 200 full length assessments under my belt, I’ve seen the whole spectrum of fictional characters, from You’re so real I can almost smell you to Oh dear, he’s made of cardboard. Pity…
We all want our characters to step off the page as living breathing individuals, so I’d like to give you my three most cited reasons for characterization failure and how to correct it.
Use of cliches
The moment I read He was so angry, steam came out his ears, I want to put the book down. Seriously? Do you not realize that readers are highly visual? Unless this is a fantasy/children’s book, your character doesn’t actually have steam lifting their cap, or daggers shooting out of their eyes.
Instead of giving us a cliche (and turning your character into generic angry man) show us how your character is unique. We all experience and express anger in different ways. Some people get theatrical and throw things. Others (scary people) go really quiet and just stare at you. When you’re writing a scene, spend time thinking about your character and how they’re likely to feel anger (physical sensations and thoughts) and how they’re likely to express it (dialogue and action). Then let that flow into the scene.
For those of you who don’t understand viewpoint, it’s the perspective of the character whose eyes/sensations/feelings/thoughts you’re choosing to filter the story through. I’ve grabbed an image from Grand Theft Auto to show you what I mean: your character looking at the world of your story (or their phone as the case may be):
It’s your job as the author to pick a character in a scene and show us the scene through their viewpoint, along with all their opinions about what’s happening and why and what they think of others etc. When you leave us inside their mind for extended periods of time (not head-hopping from one character to the next), we grow comfortable there and drop deeply into the story, coming to understand that character’s natural biases, interests, memories, desires and fears. This is how you build characterization via the Show don’t tell method, and it’s also the reason that you try to give your main characters the lion’s share of the viewpoint, so their characterization will be strong.
What I don’t want to see is you stepping in as narrator to “tell” me:
Mary was fat and ugly. No man ever asked her out. She often gorged on food instead of taking time to care for her appearance.
I’d rather you sit me inside Mary’s head and “show” me:
Mary slumped onto the stained couch and wondered if there was a spring loose before she dug a half-eaten Toblerone out from under her butt-cheek. She tossed it into the ashtray before reaching for the sticky remote control. Nothing decent on the box, as usual. Only dating shows and they gave her indigestion. Stupid women spending ten hours in hair and makeup just so they could get on tv.
Bitches. Mary reached past the sleeping cat into the opened pizza box and took out the last slice of a family-sized cheesy crust. “Any loser can marry a farmer”, she told Princess Jasmine, who slept on, blissfully unaware of the mozzarella dotting her fur. “If they want to live in the middle of woop woop.”
Not exactly deathless prose, but the difference between what you “tell” the reader (narrative summary) and what you “show” them via Mary’s viewpoint (in a scene with setting, dialogue and action) is the difference between a cookie-cutter character and one that’s starting to come to life. It’s still a little generic, but as the story progresses, you’d have ample opportunity to make Mary truly unique as you show us the world through her eyes so we can really empathize with her.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read a character who’s so stereotypical they feel like they stepped out of a board game. You know the type: the sexy secretary, the big bad biker, the gruff boss, the dotty aunt, the feisty grandma, the cherub child, etc, ad nauseam.
I’m not saying kids can’t be cute, but no child is cute 24/7. Neither is every child ‘bouncing off the walls’ (see Cliches above) 24/7. Some secretaries are just good at their job and aren’t there to be lusted over or objectified. Ditto shirtless construction-workers.
Real people are never just one thing. Neither are good characters. For seat-of-the-pants writers, this can be a real problem because as they start the book they might not know their character very well. But by the end of writing a book in draft they should know their character inside-out, and that’s the time to go back and change anything that feels generic or stereotyped. If the secretary in your story is sexy, what if she’s also a math whiz or a kick-boxer or has a house full of adopted pets?
I’m not telling you to go mental with quirks, but try to think past the characterization shorthand we all use when we’re looking at characters from the outside, and get inside them, under their skin, inside their heads. Even sub-characters who never have viewpoint in the story should still come across as unique individuals.
So, there you have it my friends. Three easy tips to make your fictional characters more realistic. If you’ve got questions or further tips, please pop them into the questions below. And if you’re looking for a good book to help with fiction writing, I can heartily recommend this one. My copy is dog-eared!