Monday, March 9, 2009


What is characterization? How do you make a character come alive in a reader's eyes? A number of us are struggling with that right now, and as I find having something down on paper helps clear thing up, I thought I'd try answering that. In answering it, I also came to the conclusion that developing a character can also develop plot because ultimately one of the best ways to develop a character is through reacting to other characters and events and this leads to plot. Knowing how to characterize is critical.

Do you need to show personal appearance? Or age? Probably, but in my opinion you want to include that information in action. A primary rule of writing is to show rather than tell, so it's probably better to say a character tossed her head (or his head) to get an irritating bit of hair out of her eyes, as one example, than to spell out literally how someone looks. Age--I think that's tougher. An agent told me once that it is absolutely verboten to start a book with "Twelve year old Lucy..." Can you say, "Like many other 12 year olds, Lucy was...?" Absolutely not. I ignore age as much as I can. I'm chicken. I just have a 12 year old going into her seventh grade class. Maybe have an older kid tease some a younger kid and that way age can be mentioned. Get the information out with action of some kind--even if it's just going into her classroom. How do you show age and personal appearance?

As I said earlier, I think one of the most important ways to show age and appearance, a character's personality and develop plot is to have a character react to events or other characters, by either action or dialogue or by using the character's thoughts. Try to think of a favorite book where a character's traits come through because of action. One of the books I think of in this connection is the wonderful "The Great Gilly Hopkins" by Katherine Paterson.

The story starts with characterization. Gilly is asked a question by her social worker. Gilly totally ignores the question, instead blows a bubble from a wad of gum that becomes so large it pops and ends up plastered all over her hair--perhaps the equivilant of giving the social worker the rasberry. Obviously the next foster mother is going to have to deal with that gum, which will put the social worker in a bad light because of how she's delivering Gilly to her. Gilly could care less. The picture of Gilly blowing that bubble is the picture on the cover, and perhaps one of the most beloved covers in all children's literature. Gilly is being driven to her next foster home by the social worker. Gilly is furious at her life--furious about being shuttled from one foster home to the next for the large part of her life. From the dialogue between Gilly and the long suffering social worker you pity the poor person who's going to have to deal with Gilly and you just know--from page one--that the book is going to be packed with all kinds of funny horrors. Gilly is a foster mother's nightmare.

Nightmares are much more fun to read about than so called "nice" children.

Characterization that has a character reacting to events or other characters can also set up scenes and further plot. The scene is the movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" when Snow White is running frightened through a nightmare forest ends with her throwing herself on the ground and sobbing. Eyes peer out at her and she is terrified. Then a parade of little animals come out and sit around her and she is charmed. Here you go from total terror to total delight. Quite a trick if you can do it and both scenes come out strongly because you're dealing with opposites.

How does Paterson show Gilly's age and personal appearance? Maybe Gilly's hair color is brought out in the bubble blowing scene and somehow during the conversation with the social worker her age comes out. I think that's got to be the best way to show age and appearance and personality and plot and Katherine Paterson is a master at this kind of writing.

How do you bring a character to life?


JKB said...

I think I don't have a problem inside my head with the character, but sometimes bringing him/her to life on the page is the problem (as you said.) And always when I start a MS voice is spotty, which means the revisions are really when the character comes alive (imo)

great post!

marsh to the fore said...

I agree totally. I'm just now doing some revisions on the first chapter of Run that are making Pearl come alive more. I thought she was fine but then saw I could/should do more.


Glad you liked the post. Now if I can just learn from it!

Kerri said...

Especially bringing them to live in third person. I'm learning how to do that thanks to all of you.

marsh to the fore said...

Bringing characters to life is harder than I ever thought possible. I don't do what a lot of people suggest, which is to keep a diary page marking down favorite colors, hobbies of a character and I think that could be helpful too. Third person has to be the hardest because it's the most removed.