Ten Tips For Better Characterization

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by Maureen Lang

1) Realistic, natural dialogue. Like a musician with an ear for notes, be a writer with an ear for conversational rhythm. Read your dialogue aloud to be sure it sounds like what you hear around you-only better! Real life might afford extraneous “ums,” repetitions, and unclear meaning but the written word allows only clarity and tight communication.

2) Dialogue can reveal background information, education, and how your character feels about him/herself—and others.

3) Character description. Your reader must know how to imagine your character, but it’s vital that descriptions be slipped in almost without the reader knowing it. It’s tempting to have them in front of a mirror, but how about something new? Another character referring to some unique trait your character might possess? Or an insecure-or prideful-thought about a certain trait? It’s worth it to come up with a unique way for your reader to imagine each of your characters, from the main ones to the supporting cast.

4) Action. What your character does, how he/she initiates action or reacts to the situation around them speaks volumes about who they are. Do they act selflessly or selfishly? Bravely or cowardly? Timidly or domineeringly? Intelligently or naively?

5) Motivation. Why is your character behaving the way they are? Remember: the stronger the action, the greater the motivation must be.

6) Contrast sharpens characterization. Two characters who sound or act alike will be difficult for your reader to keep apart.

7) Consistency. A carefully drawn character with indomitable strength will not wimp out—at least not unless you’ve foreshadowed a certain weakness and their moment of truth includes facing that exact weakness (i.e. Superman’s Kryptonite). On the other hand, if you’ve drawn a consistently timid character, you must build their backbone toward the capacity to act less timid for that out-of-character action to be believed. Your characters will be true to the nature you’ve drawn for them unless you give a really great reason to act otherwise.

8) Don’t forget body movements. Like doctors who know the science of the body, we must know the spirit of people to create life-like characters. Study those around you. Enhance your characters with detailed body movement: Direct or indirect eye contact? Slumped shoulders or rigid posture? Determined or shuffling pace? Body movements can reveal mood, too.

9) No character is too small. Remember, even the secondary characters must have a reason to be included, and if you’ve included them they should be unique and memorable, not cardboard, convenient, or commonplace.

10) Character arc. Make sure your characters grow and learn, so they’re capable of something at the end they weren’t capable of in the beginning.

Bonus tip: while we all strive to write unique stories, remember that if your characters are totally unfamiliar to the reader, they must at least deal with familiar emotions so your reader can identify/sympathize with them.

Maureen Lang writes stories inspired by a love of history and romance, and her books have finaled in the Christy, Rita and Carol. Her newest novel from Tyndale is set in New York City’s Gilded Age, Bees In The Butterfly Garden. She lives in the Midwest with her husband, children and Labrador retriever.

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