Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Don’t Make This Common Characterization Mistake

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A flat character can kill an otherwise good story.

I was chatting with an editor of a publishing house recently, who mentioned a problem he sees in a lot of the submissions that cross his desk.

Poor characterization.

Cardboard characters. No sense of depth. Names, but not people. Without that characterization, it's impossible to connect with the characters or the story.

Compelling characters are vital to a novel, so if you want readers to love and connect with your characters, they need to feel like real people. So remember:

Characters aren’t just “people with names who do things.”

Characters drive the plot, not the other way around. It’s their choices and needs that cause them to act and make the plot happen.

Show who they are by how they act, and how they try to get what they want.

Characterization should be easy, because we’re showing our characters being who they are.
  • How they solve problems should show their personality.
  • How they go about their daily life should tell readers important things about them.
  • What they want from life should give glimpses into their hopes and dreams, even their fears.
Imagine you character needs a new phone, but can’t afford one. How might they obtain one? They might:
  • Steal it or the money to buy it
  • Work overtime to earn the money to buy it
  • Get a second job to cover the costs
  • Sell some belongings
  • Ask friends and relatives for the money
  • Earn enough money to buy an older model they can afford
  • Con or sweet talk someone out of giving them the phone or the money to buy it
Each of these possibilities says something different about the character. They each come with potential personality traits and philosophies about the world.

Someone willing to steal money has a different outlook on life than someone who will get a second job to afford something they want.

How characters choose to act says a lot about who they are as people.

(Here’s more on Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

Show their flaws in action. Let them make mistakes.

There’s an old saying that our flaws make us who who are. This is just as true for our characters as for us.

Flaws keep characters from being perfect, and perfection in a story is boring. It’s the mistakes that not only create interesting plot points, but compelling characters as well.

A character with flaws is more relatable, and this more compelling to readers. But not just any flaw will do. Look for flaws that:
  • Allow characters to mess up or fail in plausible ways
  • Fit their backstories and worldviews
  • Are preventing them from accomplishing what they want in the story
  • Keeping them from being happy in the story
  • Can be fixed, improved, or overcome by what they face and experience in the story
The stronger your character arc, the more critical flaws will be for your characters. Facing these flaws and getting past them to be happy is the entire point of that character arc.

(Here’s more on Do Your Characters Have the Right Flaws?)

Show their good qualities by how they treat others.

Great characters also have redeeming qualities, even if they’re not the best people in the world.

Dexter is a serial killer, yet he’s trying to only kill bad people. Han Solo is a scoundrel and a smuggler, but he’s also a charmer who does the right thing when it matters.

Something about your character shows why readers ought to like them. That something, is typically a core component of their personality, and often the reason they’ll succeed in the end.

Things such as:
  • They care about others
  • They don’t back down from a fight
  • They’re exceptionally good at something
  • They’re funny
  • They’re smart in some way
  • They have a strong moral compass
  • They’re tenacious
And so on, and so on. Whatever it is, there’s something about the character worthwhile that makes them worthy for readers to spend time getting to know them.

If they aren’t likable, they’re at least compelling in some way.

(Here’s more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

Show why they want what they want and need what they need.

Human nature is interesting, and the why is usually more intriguing to readers than the what. But when you forget to show (or even include) the motivations of the character, you're missing an opportunity to pique reader interest and draw them into the book.

Motivations hook readers. A character acting for strong reasons keeps readers engaged. So make sure you make them wonder:
  • Why does a character act that way?
  • Why are these two people perfect for each other?
  • Why does the evil wizard want to rule the world?
The why keeps readers guessing, and makes them invest time in understanding the characters in the story.

If there’s no reason beyond “plot says so,” there’s no reason to read the story. They can skip to the end of the book and read the solution to the plot puzzle.

Let readers see inside the character and peel back those layers one by one over the course of the story. Show why:
  • A past trauma or hurt is causing problems now
  • A grudge is making them do stupid things
  • A goal matters enough to make them risk their lives
  • The love interest is the perfect person to make them feel whole again
Whatever your characters want, show why they want it. And more importantly—show why it matters. It’s not just about the plot. It’s personal, too.

Character motivation is more than just saying “I want it because I want it.”

(Here’s more on The Ultimate Guide to Character Motivation (Part 1))

Just like actors, characters gave give a flat and empty performance if all they do is move around the stage and recite their lines. It’s the sense that these are real people with real problems that make readers care about what happens to them.

Give you characters enough depth to make them come alive for your readers. Make them more than just “names that do stuff.”

How much effort do you put into your characterization? Who are some of your favorite characters—your own or another author’s?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Janice, the post is loaded with good info. and advice. Reading it, I thought about all the ways I can ensure my characters have the reader's attention.

    1. Thanks! As soon as the editor made that comment I knew I needed to write about it!

  2. This is a lot of good advice. I think the characters in my story were becoming rather one dimensional and I was having trouble finding some way to make them more interesting. Reading your articles give me lots of ideas to improve my stories.

    1. Glad I could help :) Sometimes we just need to write a character for a while before we find the "real them" so to speak. Get a sense of what they need to do and how they fit into the story first, and then all those character development tips can really pay off.

      Or maybe that's just me (grin).