Many know this, others don’t. Some find it easy, others difficult. No matter what the case, I would like to discuss characterization with you and how it comes about.
“What is characterization?” you ask.
Easy—it’s the art of giving your written characters their unique identity, that which sets them apart from other characters in your writing—or the characters in other people’s writing for that matter.
“But how do you give your characters their identities through characterization?”
Quite simply, in two different ways: directly and indirectly. Direct and indirect characterization are the two methods writers use to shape, mold, and form characters. Continue reading and you’ll find information on how to keep these two methods straight in your head as well as how they help to make your characters relatable, lively, and interesting. I’ll begin with direct characterization since it is the easiest method.
Direct characterization is what the author states about a particular character. The author makes explicit statements to the reader: statements like “He was this” or “She acted like that.” If you don’t want your reader to mistake some facet your character has, direct characterization will set the reader the straight. But there is a problem with using direct characterization that can drastically effect your writing and even your publishability (yes, I did just make up that word).
You see, direct characterization falls into the realm of telling. And I’m sure you’ve heard many times in the past—and you may be hearing it from your editor now—you need to show, not tell. Direct characterization does not lend itself to gracefully painting images and emotions; rather, it’s an abrupt statement (however eloquently written) that tells facts. Therefore, the use of direct characterization should be kept to a minimum.
But lucky for you, there’s a way to avoid this: use indirect characterization.
“But what is indirect characterization? And how do I use it?”
I’m so glad you asked.
There are a variety of ways to work indirect characterization into your writing—five to be exact. And to help you remember them, just think of the word STEAL (just as I’m stealing this section of information from one of my college writing classes…but it’s not academic dishonesty, this info is public domain and plastered all over the internet).
Speech: what is the character’s tone, word choice, and/or accent.
Thought: what do the character’s private thoughts/feelings reveal about the character?
Effect on others toward the character: how do people react/behave around the character?
Actions: what does the character do, how does the character do it?
Looks: what does the character look like, how does he/she look or carry him- or herself?
Indirect characterization really isn’t a hard concept. All that you are doing with indirect characterization is revealing your character’s personality without stating it outright.
Now that you know the difference between the two types of characterization, how will you work it into your writing? Or, perhaps, how will you change your writing style? That I cannot tell you because every author has their own process when it comes to writing. But what I can do is give you two tips):
Tip #1: After you finish writing, start from the beginning and search out those all-knowing author statements that give details instead of paint pictures. When you’re sleuthing through your pages, especially look for the telltale verb forms of “to be.” Besides being a weak verb, forms of “to be” can be a tip-off that there is a direct characterization statement. Once you find it, try and think of a way to subtly paint what you have brazenly stated.
Tip #2: While writing, if you find you have written a statement (eg She was shy.) Stop and fix it right then and there. And do this for three main reasons. First, it cuts down on your editor telling you that you’re telling and not showing—no one wants to sound like or listen to a broken record. Second, it cuts down on the time it takes to edit your manuscript. The less telling you do, the less rewriting you have to do! Third, this to establish the habit of critically eyeballing what you’re writing while you write. This kind on-the-job training hones your skills because practice doesn’t make perfect if you’re practicing incorrectly, so correct a stylistic mistake as soon as it’s made.
I hope this information was either a good refresher for your or that you found it helpful for either correcting a bad habit or looking at new ways to create and shape your characters. I want to leave you with this note from one very successful writer:
“Every human being has hundreds of separate people liing under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have relate to other characters living with him.”
The Wild Rose Press