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Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 24, 2015 9:54 am

This week’s lesson is for writers of fiction or creative nonfiction—so you writers of devotionals and Bible studies and other nonfiction genres get a week off (or you can stretch yourself and work through the lesson and the homework). I’m going to be covering…

Characterization—the process by which a writer reveals the personality of a character.

Readers are definitely drawn to fully-realized personalities--whether a character is good or evil, human or not—the more we feel that we know that character, the more we’ll be invested in the story.

So—how do you develop a character?

1. By telling your reader directly what the character is like. But be careful—don’t limit yourself to simply adjectival descriptions. It’s far better to write Joe kicked the puppy than Joe was mean.

2. By describing how a character looks and dresses. Be careful not to just write a list: Suzy was model-thin, with shining blonde hair and vivid blue eyes. She was wearing a pink tennis skirt, a designer polo, and a bracelet studded with diamonds. Instead, work these details into descriptions of the action.

3. By letting your readers hear the character speak. If you’re writing in 3rd person, the readers will “hear” their actual dialogue. “Gracious me!” said Millie. “I do believe the turkey may be overcooked!”

If you’re writing in 1st person, your readers “hear” the character through both the dialogue and the narrative. Distressed, I pulled the blackened turkey from the oven. Gracious, burned again. “Well dear, the sweet potatoes will still be delicious…”

I’ve done whole lessons on writing dialogue, so I’ll just hit a few points here:

• Make it sound natural. Real people speak with contractions, hesitations, fragments. They interrupt each other. They use slang.
• If you use a dialect or an accent, be authentic. If this is not a dialect or an accent that you’re intimately familiar with, reconsider using it. Inauthentic accents are very off-putting to the reader.
• Make sure that the character’s speech is consistent with her personal traits: age, education, economic status, gender, profession, geographic location, time period.

4. By revealing the character’s private thoughts and feelings. Here’s where you get inside your character’s head and heart, and write those great italicized bits.

Jan glanced over at the treadmill collecting dust in the corner and shoved a huge bite of donut into her mouth. I’ll exercise later today. Or maybe tomorrow. Definitely by the next day, for sure.

5. By their actions. The little example above reveals something about Jan by her actions as well as her thoughts.

This is a good place to mention a few other terms having to do with characterization: flat characters and rounded characters.

A flat character is a character who lacks defining personality traits, or whose personality traits are utterly predictable. That character might be defined by just a simple, stereotyped descriptive phrase: the best friend…the street thug…the wealthy heiress…the country bumpkin. Flat characters don’t change much (or at all) in the course of the story, and if they’re not the main character, sometimes they’re just introduced as a device to conveniently move the plot along.

A rounded character is far more interesting to read. This character has distinctive personality traits: she has quirks…he is complex (neither all bad nor all good)…she has experiences that challenge her beliefs or her behaviors…he thinks one thing and does another. In short, a rounded character is not one who can be described with just a phrase, because there is far more to the character than can be defined by just a few words. A rounded character changes during the course of the story.

If you’re writing for the challenge, it may be difficult to write fully rounded characters; after all, you only have 750 words. But it can be done, and using the five methods I’ve laid out here is a good start. You may have to introduce a flat character in a challenge entry, but certainly your main character should be more than a paper doll.

If you’re writing a longer piece of fiction, then it’s vital that all of your main characters be rounded characters. Give them physical habits…quirks of speech…favorites and dislikes contrary to expectations…personality traits that differ from other similar characters in the novel (not all teenage girls say “like” and have slumber parties, not all husbands barbecue and watch football)…fears and hopes. Don’t have them simply say lines of dialogue and go places and do things; give them deep motivations for the things that they do, and show that motivation to the readers.

Here’s a Writing Challenge story with four characters: a mother and a father and their two children: Junie and a newborn baby. You should be able to see right away that only Junie is a rounded character; the others are flat. Hang on to that thought; there’s a homework question about it.

HOMEWORK:

Incorporating the five points above, write a little character study of an interesting person. Keep it at about 100 – 150 words, and be sure not to just describe this person. Use dialogue, actions, description, and thoughts to help your reader get to know this character. OR

Read Unconvinced, the story linked to above. List some of the ways that Junie is made to be a rounded character and some of the reasons why the characters of the mother and the father are flat. You could also look for examples of #1 – 5 in the characterization of Junie and tell which ones you find.

Link to an entry of yours that you feel is a good example of characterization, and tell us a bit about it.

Questions or comments about this skill? I’d love to hear them.


As always, I welcome ideas for future lessons.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby rcthebanditqueen » Sat Jan 24, 2015 4:30 pm

I hope to come back and do the homework when I get a chance, but I have a question in the meantime. You mentioned the italicized bits for character thoughts. That is something I have used quite a bit in my writing, and I have to be careful not to overuse it. It does seem to work better at getting into the character's head in place of more "telly" narration. I was reading a discussion elsewhere (not on FW) where someone said they thought italicized parts were a distraction and "reminded them that they were reading".

I like my italic thoughts, but I guess I haven't read enough pieces with italics used to know if it really works or not if I'm coming in as a reader. Is it something that has come in and out of "writing fashion"? I'm just curious. I guess it is just a personal preference thing, maybe?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby glorybee » Sat Jan 24, 2015 4:37 pm

It's definitely a matter of personal preference. I've seen challenge entries and published works where it's overdone--but far more often it helps the reader to understand the character's thoughts. But as with everything that is more art than science--like writing--people will have differing opinions.

I can't answer your question about "writing fashion" because I simply don't know. That might be one for Ann's forum, or you could ask Deb. Sorry!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby DustBSH » Wed Jan 28, 2015 3:03 pm

Great Jan
I will see if I can make some time for the homework.
I bet you like donuts. Ha.
Your story about June is truly marvellous. I will read it to my wife, and I am sure she will enjoy it immensely. (We have 7 children)
Kind regards

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby KatKane » Thu Jan 29, 2015 11:33 am

Okay, here goes an attempt at characterisation.

The slam of the door marked Jamie's arrival home. He slung his coat and bag in the middle of the floor. He slumped down in front of the TV, remote in hand, all ready for an evening's gaming, just as Mum arrived home.

"Jamie, please put your coat and bag away."

"Aw, whatever, Mum! You're always on my case!"

"Now please, Jamie."

"Pick it up yourself, then."

No need to ask why you got a detention today, thought Mum.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby glorybee » Thu Jan 29, 2015 12:10 pm

KatKane wrote:Okay, here goes an attempt at characterisation.

The slam of the door marked Jamie's arrival home. He slung his coat and bag in the middle of the floor. He slumped down in front of the TV, remote in hand, all ready for an evening's gaming, just as Mum arrived home.

"Jamie, please put your coat and bag away."

"Aw, whatever, Mum! You're always on my case!"

"Now please, Jamie."

"Pick it up yourself, then."

No need to ask why you got a detention today, thought Mum.


Kat, there are some really great things in this little scene. You've told us a great deal about Jamie from his actions (some of your effective words are slam, slung and slumped). From those actions--and his belongings--I can infer that he's a teenager with an attitude. I can also deduce that he's probably from a UK country (he uses "Mum"). His speech tells me a little more about him--he's rude to his mother. If I'd given you more than 100 words, I'm sure you'd have clued me in on what happened in school that day--maybe he's a great kid who just had a rough day. Maybe he's chronically rude, even at school.

My only issue with this little vignette is that you slipped from Jamie's POV to his mother's POV by letting us read her thoughts. Nevertheless, we get a hint of his mother's character, too--she's not surprised by Jamie's attitude, and she wasn't particularly surprised by his detention. It seems as if this scene is one that has played often in their home.

Thanks for being brave enough to do the homework--I was beginning to wonder if this lesson was going unnoticed. Just me second-guessing myself again, I guess.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby KatKane » Thu Jan 29, 2015 1:44 pm

You're spot on about him being a teenager with attitude :D

Can you use other characters (their perceptions, their reactions etc.) as a means of developing a character?

I love writing about characters. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=49891 This was the Jonah entry I wrote. I used internal thoughts a lot, but not much physical description, although I did put in a few hints about his character and attitudes in there.

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=49307 This one was about my dog and cat. There's a fair bit in here about their various traits.

I'm not sure how well either of these fit the criteria. This lesson has definitely got me thinking! You rock, Jan. :bow
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby glorybee » Thu Jan 29, 2015 2:02 pm

KatKane wrote:You're spot on about him being a teenager with attitude :D

Can you use other characters (their perceptions, their reactions etc.) as a means of developing a character?



Absolutely, and you did that in your homework selection. But having two POVs in 100 words is a but much. If you were dead set on having Jamie's mother's thoughts about him, it would be easy enough to have her already in the room when he arrived and started to do all that slamming, slinging, and slumping. Those would all be things that she observed, putting the whole thing in her POV, and making her thoughts at the end entirely consistent with that POV.

Your two examples of characterization in challenge entries are wonderful! Thanks for sharing them with us!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Thu Jan 29, 2015 9:40 pm

KatKane wrote:http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level1-previous.php?id=49307 This one was about my dog and cat. There's a fair bit in here about their various traits.


Kat, thanks for posting the link to "Entente Cordiale." This was one of your early entries, and I guess I must have missed it. I love the way you illustrated the differing personalities of the two pets, and how you tied in their relationship with history.

Cinnamon Bear :coolsign

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Fri Jan 30, 2015 2:51 pm

I can’t say enough about the importance of characterization. Until quite recently, characterization had been one of my weak points. I wrote mostly about places, things, and events. This was enough for me to move up to Advanced, but until I started breathing some life into my characters, I couldn’t move up to Masters.

Here is the link to one of my fairly recent entries:

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level4-previous.php?id=48561

The main character, Charles Leale, is known as “Lincoln’s last friend.” Leale grew up in Yonkers, New York where he is a local hero to this day. My father grew up in Yonkers much later, so that is how I came to learn about Leale.

In writing this entry, I didn’t want the readers to know that it was about Abraham Lincoln until the end. So in the first part of the entry my description of Leale is limited. From reading it, we know that Leale is a young army captain of modest means, at the theater enjoying a respite from war.

After Lincoln is shot, Leale’s character as well as his devotion to Lincoln is revealed as he fights to save the life of the dying President. I reveal his character mainly by describing his actions and by showing his thoughts and feelings.

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Last edited by Cinnamon Bear on Fri Jan 30, 2015 3:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Fri Jan 30, 2015 3:08 pm

I didn’t think of an idea for the “Gluttony” topic until after the deadline for entries closed. :( So for my character sketch, here is a little snippet of what I might have written if I had thought of it earlier:


Amanda clutched at her baggy print dress and cringed when Lise arrived for their lunch date at La Maison Robert in a little black dress, as svelte as ever. After they had finished college eight years ago, Lise returned to France. But now she was back in the States with her husband.

Ma chèrie amie!" She hugged Amanda. “You are well?”

Except for thirty extra pounds.

Lise exclaimed at the menu selections, “Poulet à la bretonne, Mousse au chocolat…and we must have a glass of Chardonnay…”

Maybe I could order a salad. I brought some fat-free dressing. I’ve got some Sweet ’n Low for coffee…I wonder if a place like this serves diet cola...

Amanda shook her head when Lise buttered two slices of baguette and offered her one.

“Is there someone special in your life, Amanda?”

“Not at the moment.” More like not for the past five years.

Ma amie! You must learn to enjoy life.”

Cinnamon Bear
Last edited by Cinnamon Bear on Fri Jan 30, 2015 9:35 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby glorybee » Fri Jan 30, 2015 3:52 pm

Cinnamon Bear wrote:I didn’t think of an idea for the “Gluttony” topic until after the deadline for entries closed. :( So for my character sketch, here is a little snippet of what I might have written if I had thought of it earlier:


Amanda clutched at her baggy print dress and cringed when Lise arrived for their lunch date at La Maison Robert in a little black dress, as svelte as ever. After they had finished college eight years ago, Lise returned to France. But now she was back in the States with her husband.

Ma chèrie amie!" she hugged Amanda. “You are well?”

Except for thirty extra pounds.

Lise exclaimed at the menu selections, “Poulet à la bretonne, Mousse au chocolat…and we must have a glass of Chardonnay…”

Maybe I could order a salad. I brought some fat-free dressing. I’ve got some Sweet ’n Low for coffee…I wonder if a place like this serves diet cola...

Amanda shook her head when Lise buttered two slices of baguette and offered her one.

“Is there someone special in your life, Amanda?”

“Not at the moment.” More like not for the past five years.

Ma amie! You must learn to enjoy life.”

Cinnamon Bear


Virginia, I loved your story of Lincoln's doctor--it was beautifully done. Thanks for sharing the link!

I also appreciate the ways in which you've characterized poor Amanda. Through her thoughts, her clothing, her dialogue, and her actions, we get a good idea of this woman--and even though the character of Lise is not the POV character, we get a really good idea of what's she's all about, too. Well done!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby Sibermom65 » Fri Jan 30, 2015 4:56 pm

I have a question on dialogue - are there resources for learning about dialects as related to historical time, culture, and age?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby Sibermom65 » Fri Jan 30, 2015 5:11 pm

Here is a small selection from a story I've been working on that I hope shows characterization of Jonas through his interaction with his younger brother.

Benji wondered what Pa could have been thinking when he sent him here to help Jonas. His brother needed someone strong and capable, not a clumsy kid.
"Benji, look at me," Jonas spoke in his gentle voice. Reluctantly Benji turned his troubled dark eyes to face his older brother. "You can't lay down on the job and quit, just because it's hard or you can't do it perfectly. Since the Indians took me captive and crippled these legs of mine there's lots of things I can't do well, but they still got to be done. You may be wearing a man's body, but you're still only 13, and some things just take more time. You got to just keep pushing and growing, and someday you'll be plowing furrows straight as Pa's. But you can't give up trying."

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CHARACTERIZATION

Postby glorybee » Fri Jan 30, 2015 7:38 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I have a question on dialogue - are there resources for learning about dialects as related to historical time, culture, and age?


That's a really good question, and I wish I knew the answer to it. I've read and edited many pieces in which the dialect or accents were just "off"--they were rendered inauthentically, and it became a major distraction in reading the piece. My suggestion to those writers (and to all writers) would be not to attempt to write dialogue in an accent or a dialect unless you are very, very, very familiar with that dialect: if you grew up with it, or live in a place where the people speak it, or you have very close friends or family members who speak it.

If you really desire to set a piece in Upper Elbonia and you're not familiar with the Upper Elbonian accent, I can suggest a few things:

1. Maybe a field trip is in order? Hooray!
2. Read other books in which the characters are from Upper Elbonia, and study how the dialogue is written.
3. Search for YouTube videos of people speaking in Upper Elbonian accents, or seek out a place where you can listen and observe.

The only other suggestion I have is to take it easy on the dialects. Instead of writing something like:

"Y'all best be lookin' purty hard fer that there missin' money, y'hear, 'cuz the little'uns cain't have no presents fer their Christmas if'n ya cain't fin' it purty durn quick-like!"

That's just exhausting for your readers, who pretty much have to translate it into standard English before they can make sense of it. Pick and choose a few representative quirks of that particular dialect, and let the reader's imagination fill in the rest.

"Y'all best look hard for that missin' money, or the little'uns won't have no Christmas presents if you don't find it pretty quick!"
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