Characters vs. Characterization: Peopling Your Novel

Now that you've researched the ideal setting for your book and plotted out the framework for a killer story, you've got to people it with memorable, flesh-and-bone characters. In my opinion, this is where you should spend the bulk of your creative energy, because without strong characters, even the most elaborately set and intricately imagined plot will fail to grab a reader.

In his book, STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING, Hollywood script consultant, Robert McKee, says that writers often confuse Characterization with Character. They are, as I've come to agree, two very different things.

Characterization is the sum total of the *observable* qualities of a human being. For example, let's say you spent hours on a detailed character sheet (FWIW, I don't use them). You've established that your hero has black hair and green eyes, a proud aquiline nose and stern jaw, straight white teeth and a cocky smile. That's all good--we're getting a visual picture of him on the page. Now dig a little deeper. You've decided that he is a nobleman--better yet, a nobleman who's been denied his birthright, which gives him a bit of an attitude (you can see it in his arrogant stride and hear it in his dry wit). More good stuff--he's starting to take shape.

Let's flesh him out some more. Our handsome, embittered nobleman, who was denied his title for reasons we've yet to define, has since gone on to make his own wealth. He's been ruthless in his pursuit of money and status, and as our story opens, he is the owner of a lucrative shipping business. He's aloof. A loner. Feared and scorned by men, and secretly desired by even the most proper ladies. Sounds like quite a character, right?

Actually, we don't know anything about his character. All we have done so far is define his characterization. The tools we have for defining characterization include: appearance, speech, mannerism, attitude, background, point of view, etc. To define his character--who he is in his heart of hearts, at the core of his humanity--we have to put him in a pressure situation and force him to act. The choices he makes, the actions he takes, are what define his character.

In fiction, we need to take that concept a step further. We need to define character, then use our story to illustrate change (or growth) in character. To do that, we need to establish what is elementally important to our characters--their deepest dreams and desires, their most secret goals--then think of ways to strip them bare and make them PROVE THROUGH ACTION that they are worthy of having those rewards.

Enter CONFLICT, my next topic of the day . . . .

p.s. One of my favorite reference books for characterization is THE COMPLETE WRITER'S GUIDE TO HEROES & HEROINES by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. This book illuminates and explains 16 master archetypes for character building, giving examples of traits and personalities for each archetype, including their potential flaws and virtues, then takes it to the next level to show how the various hero and heroine archetypes would interact together and conflict. Just browsing this book inspires all sorts of new characters and potential storylines. If you don't have it, do yourself a favor and get it! It's a wonderful resource! (See the Reference Desk section of my Writers Tips & Articles page for a link to order.)