Showing posts with label indirect characterization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label indirect characterization. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 10

How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions


How to Build an Interesting Character: 10 Questions


How do we create interesting characters, characters with depth and conflicting desires? Today I talk about 10 ways writers can communicate the essence of a character to readers.

I’ve gone over this before (see: Tags & Traits: Characterization And Building Empathy and 7 Tips for Creating an Interesting Detective) but what I want to talk about today is a bit different: 10 ways writers can communicate the essence of a character to readers.

But, before I get to the 10 ways, let’s take a look at direct vs indirect characterization.

Direct or Explicit Characterization


In direct characterization you, the writer, tell the audience—your readers—what a character is like.

This telling can be done in a number of ways: through the narrator, through another character or through the character themselves (see Characterization)

a. The Narrator

Example: Even though Johnny was 6’3’’ tall and had flaming red hair he was rarely noticed.
Here the narrator tells us what Johnny is like. Note: The narrator could be unreliable, so even in direct narration a reader can’t just take what they read at face value.

b. Another Character

Example: Dan said, “Hey, Sue! Have you seen Johnny? He’s tall, and with that head of red hair you’d think he’d be easy to spot. Not so much!”
Here a character in the story lets us know what Johnny is like. Generally these descriptions reflect the (possibly inaccurate) beliefs of the character who is speaking.

c. The Character Themselves

Example: I said, “Mark, I don’t understand it. All my life I’ve stood a head taller than all my friends. And I have this blazing red hair. You’d think I’d be easy to spot, but my parents lost me 63 times before I turned 9. I seem to be uniquely forgettable!”
Here the character themselves tells you the reader about what they’re like. That is, it is their INTENTION to tell you something about themselves. This isn’t necessarily so for indirect characterization.

Indirect/Implicit Characterization


In indirect characterization you let your audience infer what a particular character is like through ...

1. A physical description of the character.


In what follows I’m going to rely on quotations from Stephen King’s work because he is one of the authors I’ve studied the most.

What does the character look like?


This is the second paragraph in Stephen King's The Shining:
Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.
This is an amazing paragraph! It not only tells us what Ullman looks like (so, strictly speaking, this is direct characterization), but INDIRECTLY the narrator tells us about Jack Torrance, about his anger, his insecurity, his feelings of inferiority. (see: Free Indirect Discourse)

How does the character dress?


Again, from THE SHINING:
The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer.
Direct characterization: We’re told Ullman is wearing a dark suit.
Indirect characterization: Ullman is condescending.

2. A psychological description of the character.


This is from Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King:
Hodges walks out of the kitchen with a can of beer in his hand, sits down in the La-Z-Boy, and puts the can down on the little table to his left, next to the gun. It’s a .38 Smith & Wesson M&P revolver, M&P standing for Military and Police. He pats it absently, the way you’d pat an old dog...
From this I understand that Hodges is the kind of man who knows how to use a gun, has used one in the past to good effect, and feels he may need to do the same in the future. Although it’s only two and a half sentences, it gives a clear vision of one element of Hodges psychology.

3. The words a character uses.


Here is something Ullman said in “The Shining.” He’s speaking to Jack:
I suspect that what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, of which Grady had laid in a generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?
A couple of things: One has the feeling Ullman doesn’t approve of whisky and especially not CHEAP whisky. Also, it seems slightly hostile—patronizingly superior—that Ullman would ask Jack (who he knows used to be a teacher) if he knew the term “cabin fever.”

Also, I know we’re going to cover this explicitly in a minute, but look at HOW Ullman talks. Like a textbook. Controlled. A teacher doling out his wisdom.

4. The WAY the character talks. Through their accent, intonation, confidence level, speech impediments, and so on.


This is from Under the Dome, by Stephen King:
“I don’t know how to describe it. I never seen anything quite like it.” Gendron paused, scratching both cheeks, drawing his already long face down so he looked a little like the screamer in that Edvard Munch painting. “Yes I have. Once. Sorta. When I brought home a couple of goldfish for my daughter’s sixth birthday. Or maybe she was seven that year. I brought em home from the pet store in a plastic bag, and that’s what this looks like—water in the bottom of a plastic bag.
Notice the short sentences, the (relatively) simple, short, words. The speech has rhythm. Also, notice the speech is intentionally not grammatical (“I never seen anything...”). It communicates an image, a definite idea, of what the speaker is like. (Ullman would never, in a 1,000 years, say anything remotely like this!)

5. The character’s actions, what the character does.


From Misery by Stephen King:
“He lay back, looking at the ceiling, listening to the wind. He was near the top of the Great Divide in the heart of winter, he was with a woman who was not right in her head, a woman who had fed him with IV drips when he was unconscious, a woman who had an apparently never-ending supply of dope, a woman who had told no one he was here.
“These things were important, but he began to realize that something else was more important: the tide was going out again. He began to wait for the sound of her alarm clock upstairs. It would not go off for some long while yet, but it was time for him to start waiting for it to be time.
“She was crazy but he needed her.
“Oh I am in so much trouble he thought, and stared blindly up at the ceiling as the droplets of sweat began to gather on his forehead again.”
Here Paul Sheldon doesn’t DO anything terribly exciting, but through his thoughts we see his situation. We see—we FEEL—how truly desperate, truly awful, a situation he finds himself in. Here it isn’t what he does but what he doesn’t do, what he can’t do. He is the powerless captive of a mentally unbalanced woman. Not good!

But look at how Paul reacts to the realization of his dire situation. He is almost preternaturally calm. Yes, the sweat begins to bead on his forehead but part of that is because he’s in withdrawal from the opiates Annie Wilkes has been giving him.

6. What other characters say about him or her.


This is from “It” by Stephen King:
“Please, I got to talk to my mother,” Steve Dubay said for the third time. “I’ve got to get her to mellow out my stepfather, or there is going to be one hell of a punching-match when I get home.”
This short paragraph paints a grisly picture of Steve Dubay’s home life. We come to understand the violence of his father and his mother’s grudging acceptance of it, but we infer this. It’s never explicitly stated.

7. The character’s reactions to others, his or her behavior toward others.


Enough Stephen King quotes! That said, if anyone would like to send me a passage that nicely illustrates the below (it doesn’t have to be from a Stephen King novel!), please share it in a comment.

  • How does the character react to the people he/she works with.
  • How does the character react to his/her friends?
  • Think about the differences between how the character behaves toward these different groups: family, friends and acquaintances.

For example, if the character doesn’t feel safe visiting her family she is going to act differently than when she hangs out with her friends.

8. The character’s thoughts.


What are the character’s thoughts? Are they markedly different from what he says? Does the character lie to himself or just to others?

I know I said “No more Stephen King quotes!” but my favorite first line, ever, is from Stephen King’s The Shining: Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

That sums up Jack Torrence and his anger, his bitterness. It gives us the character’s essence.

9. The character’s feelings.


What is the character feeling? Is what they are feeling consistent with how they are behaving? Are they in denial or trying to cover something up? Is how they are feeling consistent with what they are saying?

There is no right or wrong here. If what a character is feeling is consistent with how they act and what they say, fine! That communicates that the character is generally honest. A straight-shooter. But if it isn’t consistent, if she is sad or angry and not letting on, then that is conflict, and conflict is the awesome-sauce of life—at least in stories!

10.  The character’s environment.


Does the character have a lair, a place they go to recharge and feel safe? If so, how does the character react to their lair? How do they act here? Do they act differently than elsewhere (e.g., their work)? How do they feel? Is how they feel and how they act at variance.

(Is there art on the walls? Are there antiques or is everything new? Etc.)

How does the character react to the place where they work? Do they act differently than elsewhere? If so, in what way?



Every post I pick something I believe in and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I like with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Jim Butcher, author of the New York Times Best Selling series, the Dresden Files has given his wholehearted recommendation to The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. She taught him back in the day and he credits her with helping him succeed. He writes:

“So, aspiring writer, let me do you the favor I wish someone had done me. Shut up and do what Debbie tells you to do.”

I’ve read it and it’s wonderful! It’s geared toward writing either a traditional or urban fantasy, but the general structure she talks about is broadly applicable to any genre. In any case, highly recommended!



Monday, February 24

Show vs Tell: Talking About The Narrator

Show vs Tell: Talking About The Narrator


I've been sick.

Not condolence card sick, but sick. First the flu then a nasty cold. Over the past few weeks, I've been turned into a coughing, wheezing, ball of misery. 

But I'm back! Five hours of sleep, baby, and I'm back. (Hopped up on cold medication, but, hey.)

I had a final draft of my Friday post done and ready to go--it was going to be on direct and indirect characterization (in other words, telling versus showing) and using the mnemonic S.T.E.A.L.--when I fell down a very interesting rabbit hole. 

Here's how this post is going to go. First I'll talk a wee bit about characterization then I'll introduce you to a rabbit. Or something. (It's possible I'm still sick.)

Indirect Characterization And S.T.E.A.L.


STEAL is a mnemonic for (a few of) the different ways writers can show (/indirectly characterize) a character's character.

S = Speech. Show character through what a character says.
T = Thought. Show character through what a character thinks.
E = Effect. Show character through the effect a character has on other characters.
A = Action. Show character through what a character does.
L = Looks. Show character through how a character looks.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but strictly speaking one can't show anything in a written story (movies, yes; novels, no). It is, after all, written. Rather, we use words to paint pictures in our readers minds. 

For example:

i. "Charlie slept," tells an audience, our readership, that a character named Charlie was sleeping. 

ii. "Charlie, mouth agape, snored so loud the bed vibrated," implies that a character named Charlie was sleeping.

The second sentence paints a rudimentary picture where the first does not. The first tells, the second shows.

Narrators and Narrative


Even though a novel isn't a visual medium we tend to see a story as we read it. Words are like colors, a sentence is like a brush-stroke, and a paragraph is like a picture. 

When you read the sentences--(i) and (ii)--above, even though I didn't describe how old Charlie was, what color hair he had, whether he sprawled in bed or lay straight as a board with the covers pulled taught, what kind of bed it was (single, double, queen, king), what the room looked like, and so on, chances are that you, like me, had formed some sort of idea. Not a very precise one, perhaps, but enough to be getting along with. 

In this--in the formation of this mental picture--(ii) gives us marginally more to work from than (i). Generally speaking, indirect characterization gives one's imagination more to work with, more of a guide, than direct characterization. 

My question (and this brings me to the rabbit hole I feel down): Who gives us this guide? Who paints this picture?

Yes, of course, the writer does, but within the mechanics of the story it's the narrator. But what exactly, who exactly, is the narrator? Is he a character? A disembodied voice? A kind of meta-character? (A good article I read while researching this piece was: The Narrator, or Who are you? And why are you telling me this? by Lois Leveen.)

The Narrator


The narrator usually isn't a character, though this depends on the point of view your story is told from.

If you're using the first person then your narrator and your viewpoint character will be one and the same. If you're using the third person (we're going to ignore the seldom used second person) then your narrator will probably not be a character. 

"In third-person narrative, it is obvious that the narrator is merely an unspecified entity or uninvolved person that conveys the story and is not a character of any kind within the story being told." (Narrative Mode)

A narrator is, most often, an unspecified entity rather than an uninvolved person. Yes, I have read stories where the narrator tells of events that happened to people in his past and who takes someone other than himself as the viewpoint character (or it may turn out, at the end, that the narrator was, really, the viewpoint character). That said, what I'm interested in here are those stories in which the narrator is not a character. 

Question: Can The Narrator Have A Personality?


I'm talking about third-person narratives where the narrator is an unspecified entity and is not a character within the story.

I think the answer is "yes." Even though a narrator isn't a fictional person, they can still have a personality of their own. Lois Leveen writes:

"When you read, think about what clues you're given about the identity of the narrator. You may be able to pin down specific aspects of the narrator's identity (age, region, religion, race, gender, etc.) even if they are NOT explicitly stated in the text. For example, if the narrator says "Ethel put the pop in a sack and handed it to the customer," that narrator is not from the same region of the country as a person or character who would say "Ethel put the soda in a bag and handed it to the customer." If the narrator addresses older characters as Mr. or Mrs. and younger characters by first name, you may be able to gauge how old the narrator is — who are her/his elders, contemporaries, etc.?" (The Narrator, or Who are you? And why are you telling me this?)

For example, who is the narrator in Stephen King's delightfully meandering novel, "Under The Dome"? In this story, the narrator is--or seems to me to be--as close to a fully realized person (though not a character) as I've ever seen/read. For example, he speaks directly to the reader:

"Another night is falling on the little town of Chester's Mill; another night under the Dome. But there is no rest for us; we have two meetings to attend, and we also ought to check up on Horace the Corgi before we sleep. [...] 

"So let us go then, you and I, while the evening spreads out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go while the first discolored stars begin to show overhead. [...]"

"[...] let us float through certain half-deserted streets, past the Congo church and the parsonage [...].

"We'll stop for a quick check on Barbie and Rusty, shall we? There'll be no problem getting downstairs; there are only three cops in the ready room, and Stacey Morgin, who's on the desk, is sleeping with her head pillowed on her forearm. The rest of the PD is at Food City, listening to Big Jim's latest stemwinder, but it wouldn't matter if they were all here, because we are invisible. They would feel no more than a faint draft as we glide past them."

"Do we need to listen to his [Big Jim's] speech? Nah. We'll be listening to Big Jim tomorrow night, and that should be enough. Besides, we all know how this one goes; America's two great specialities are demagogues and rock and roll, and we've all heard plenty of both in our time."

It goes on. It's a marvellous scene. We can tell certain things about the narrator from the language he uses ("stemwinder") and by his attitudes toward what's going on in the town (calling Big Jim a demagogue). One of the many things I liked about "Under The Dome" was having a modern story told by an omniscient narrator and seeing how King handled this.

Presentation vs Representation


The question of whether a narrator, even though--strictly speaking--not a character can still have a personality, can still, in a way, be an active participant in the story, is addressed by Orson Scott Card in his excellent book "Character And Viewpoint." He writes:

"There are two ways of relating to the audience during the performance of a story. The difference is clearest in theater. In a representational play, the actors all act as if there were a fourth wall between them and the audience. If they look in the direction of the audience, they give no sign of seeing that anyone is out there looking at them. Instead, they pretend that they're seeing only what would be there if the play were real--another wall of the drawing room, or the rest of the Forest of Arden. This technique helps the audience maintain the illusion of reality (or, as it is commonly called, the willing suspension of disbelief). Though of course the audience knows they are watching a play, the actors do as little as possible to remind them of it."

"Presentational theater, on the other hand, tears down that imaginary fourth wall. The actors don't just admit the audience is there, they make constant contact with the audience. This style is at its extreme in the art of stand-up comedy, where the actor even talks to the audience about the audience's response. [...] The actors and the audience are engaged in continuous conversation."

In this sense, the scene we just looked at from Stephen King's "Under The Dome" would be considered much more presentational than representational. That said, the novel as a whole is (I think) much more representational than presentational.

OSC continues:

"We aren't talking about the difference between romance and realism here. We're talking about the storytellers' relationship with the audience. In fiction, the representational writer never addresses her audience. The narrator never expresses a personal opinion. All the focus is on the events, and everything is expressed through the point of view of a character in the story. In a representational first-person account, the narrator has clearly in mind who it is she's talking to, and it isn't the reading audience."

"On the other hand, fiction can be highly presentational. Kurt Vonnegut is a prime example. He speaks directly to the audience; he refers to himself; the author's hand is so obvious in the story that the reader never forgets that he is reading fiction."

Those quotations were all from chapter 14 of Orson Scott Card's book "Character and Viewpoint." Seriously, if you don't have this book on your reference shelf, think about getting it. I find it indispensable. Card addresses topics few other writers do and makes the information easy to understand. He is a top-notch writer and teacher. 

That's it for today! Sorry for the long post, but this subject of how--for lack of a better term--'thick' we want our narrator, how involved we want him to be in our story, is one I haven't spent enough time thinking about.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "parking conductor" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.