After years of writing this blog on and off, I came to the startling realization yesterday that I hadn’t written an entry regarding characterization and what that means for authors and books. In light of this horrible mistake, I am writing this entry now!
Characterization is telling the reader about characters (or even places). It’s the meat and potatoes of the “getting to know you” part of the story, and it can be extremely powerful. This blog ties directly into last week’s topic: description, so if you haven’t read that yet, I’d catch up!
Over and over again in groups and with individuals, I see folks struggling with how in the world do you help readers understand things without beating them over the head with it. We are told often to show, not tell, and while this advice has value, it’s missing a lot of the “how” of the statement. Part of the how is characterization.
I’m going to start with indirect characterization here rather than begin with direct because, frankly, I like indirect more. In some ways, you can think of it like the way Sherlock Holmes deduces facts about a person based on things like their shoes, watch, colors, clothing style, and all other details. While what he does is an exaggeration, it reflects something we as humans do every day when we meet people. It’s the reason why “long-haired freaky people need not apply” became a thing. We form understandings of people based on details about them. Whether these opinions are accurate or not is an entirely separate discussion, but it is a real thing that occurs in the world, and we can capitalize on it in our storytelling.
Characterization can happen beyond just describing a person, too. Describing their space or things around them can add a lot to the understanding of an individual. Let’s take a look at what I mean through two descriptions:
Morgan’s office was so clean it looked as though nobody could really work there. Every paper sat in a precise spot on the glass top of his desk (which was so clean it gleamed and didn’t so much as bear a single fingerprint), and his pens were organized into several containers by color. The wide windows behind him looked out onto the university campus grounds from the height of several floors, affording him the view of an eagle in its nest.Office One
Richard’s office perpetually smelled like Indian food. Piles of books covered every surface, many with extra papers stuffed into them–notes often tangentially related to the book he’d filed them in. The dark wood paneling and many bookshelves gave the space an almost cave-like feel, and the incandescent bulbs he used in his many lamps only heightened the sense of dark and warmth. He refused to use the overhead lighting, finding the buzz of the fluorescents unendurable.Office Two
Now, we know nothing about Morgan or Richard or what they look like or even what they teach. But these two offices tell stories about two radically different people, and we can gather bits of their personality through their spaces. This is characterization. While it doesn’t always require a large description to get a point across, you are giving readers an insight into a character’s head when you talk about their clothing, their choices in music, their cars, the way they arrange their bedrooms, and the way they use language in dialogue.
The way you use language, too, can indicate to a reader how they should feel about a character. If you use warmer, more caring language to describe them, readers will pick up on that. Even subconsciously. While most readers don’t enjoy a book with an exceptionally analytical eye, they are more perceptive than you might expect. You can rely on this and know that readers do typically pick up on subtext pretty well so long as you don’t bury it.
This use of indirect characterization is half the puzzle. Using a character’s spaces, clothing, and other such things is considered “indirect” characterization. As you may imagine, it’s the less overt way telling the reader who these characters are as you can probably glean from the name.
Direct characterization are things you tell the reader outright. These are things you tell the reader such as describing someone as “a tall, thin woman with confidence that hung on her like a mantle.” Too much of this will breach into “telling” territory, but it is the most efficient means of giving readers information. If a character is only going to be on scene for a short period of time, or you need a reader to know some very specific details about them for story purposes, this is a good bet.
Also, direct characterization includes things like a character telling someone something about themselves or thinking it if you’re using internal dialogue as a method in your story. It isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, and if you only use indirect characterization in a novel there’s a good chance you’ll hurt your pacing by having to tell readers an overwhelming amount of detail about the character to get your point across.
My definitions of direct and indirect characterization here differ from some other examples I’ve read where they say direct characterization is only the author telling the reader specific things (like me mentioning the confident woman) rather than any sort of reveal about a character through direct thoughts or dialogue, but I’m going to posit that anything that is equally obvious to the reader would fall under direct. While indirect is more environmental storytelling or telling the reader things about the character through the use of their clothes and other such markers.
Regardless of how you choose to discern direct and indirect characterization, we can all agree both types are vital to a story and provide a backbone to how your characters are viewed by the reader. The same actions taken by one character might be viewed very differently when taken by another based on the way you as a writer choose to display them.
Beyond this, characterization also happens with every action a character takes in a story. The reader gains more insight into them with every word devoted to that character. While, obviously, some methods are more effective and useful than others, recognize that readers absolutely will pick up on things.
This leads us to discussing issues where, for example, people hate your main character or don’t understand their motives. While some of this might come down to having a main character who relies on tropes or behaves in ways abhorrent to a reader’s sensibilities, some of it could well be lack of characterization on the part of the author. After all, to us, our character’s motives and intentions are crystal clear. If a reader just cannot connect with a character at all, there’s a good chance you’re missing some of the pieces that give a reader insight into them.
This is not to say characters cannot have secrets or big reveals, but remember, readers are gathering information on every single action a character takes. If they don’t have enough information for them to understand why a character is taking the action they are, you’ve missed a beat somewhere. Fortunately, adding that in may be as simple as providing a few lines of dialogue or a paragraph where a character ruminates on their intended purpose.
However, there are some characters where no amount of characterization will make them not sketchy down at their core. I’m sorry, Twilight fans, at no point does Edward Cullen being over a hundred years old and perpetually in high school and stalking a seventeen year old girl become less creepy. No matter how you frame it. Nor does Jacob deciding that Bella’s unborn child is his mate and that he’s going to groom the kid to be his perfect lady. The facts of the matter are still horrible.