Writing 101 -- Characterization

If you’ve been reading my blog or had me as a contest judge, you’ve heard me rant on and on about backstory as I urge writers to cut the backstory out of their novels. Readers don’t want to know how the character became who they are, unless you like memoirs, we simply want to read this story.

Characterization is backstory, but shown through a character’s dialogue and/or actions.

In other words, all the baggage that your character carries is backstory, BUT how he expresses it is CHARACTERIZATION.

In a nutshell, characterization is who your character is.

And I’m not just talking about the protagonist/antagonist, hero/heroine, or just the main characters. I’m talking about the secondary characters, minor characters and even walk-ons.


Because how each character reacts to a situation reveals something about . . . wait for it . . . their BACKSTORY. Yes, even minor characters need a little boost to their personalities sometimes.

So how do you take your characters and give them characterization?

Many writers will spend untold hours detailing their character’s personality through character sheets, which might contain everything from the physical attributes of a character to their school grades and subjects to their personal issues. While other writers might ‘interview’ the character to see how the character reacts to certain questions. And other writers (me) will simply write the story to see what happens.

What can I say? I enjoy surprises!

No matter how you figure out who your character is, it’s up to you as the writer to SHOW that to the reader.

For example:

Don’t tell the reader that your character is the quarterback of the football team, and when he goes home across the railroad tracks to the bad part of town  he finds his mother drunk on the sofa. Show the reader who this character is by his actions. It doesn’t have to be much.

Jake Franco unlocked the front door and turned the knob. When he walked through the opening, the sickly sweet smell of bourbon hit him harder than the 300-pounder on Shelbyville’s defense when he was sacked in his very first game of the season.

His mother was drunk . . . again.

Anger shot through him as he ground his teeth together. He forced himself to relax and take a deep breath before quietly shutting the door behind him. Dropping his book bag on the dinette table, he crept to the sofa where she lay sprawled.

As gently as he could he laid his hand on her shoulder and shook her awake.  Her bones seemed even more prominent this afternoon than they had been when he left for school this morning. He was afraid he might break one if he touched her too hard. “Mom? Are you awake?”

She was still alive. He had seen her chest rising and falling. One more day. She’d survived one more day of pain.

Her eyes opened, unfocused. She frowned, as if she tried to remember where she was as the alcohol dulled more than just her pain. Her brow cleared as her gaze met his. A weak smile played on her lips. She raised her hand to lightly stroke his cheek. “Jake?”

“Yeah, Mom. I’m home. Bad day today?”

She took a deep breath and tried to sit up, but a coughing spasm racked her body.  Jake helped her sit upright and handed her a tissue as she continued coughing. Finally, the spasms stopped and she shakily handed the tissue back to Jake.

There was more blood on it today.

The cancer was winning.    

Show your characterization by the character’s actions and reactions to a scene.

 So what is Jake’s backstory? And, yes, I'm making this up as I go along, including Jake's scene. 

His mother raised him to the best of her ability. His father abandoned him. He’s in high school. He’s a football player; probably quarterback (if he’s the one getting sacked). He’s angry, but not for the reason the reader is led to believe at first. They are dirt poor. His mother has no insurance, job, family, or even much of an education. She drinks to dull the pain of the metastasized cancer. Jake is doing the best that he can, but he’s just a teenager forced to grow up too soon. The reader understands that he’s taking care of his mother--he’s sensitive and responsible. He’s also angry, because he can’t do anything to help her.

Yes, there are places one can go for help, but would a teenager know about them? Doubtful, especially if the mother kept him in the dark about her condition. All she wants to do is to protect him for the harsh realities of life--too bad it isn’t working.   

Here’s another scene: Let’s say the same football player was with a group of his football buddies at a coffee shop. They are making fun of a homeless man trying to get his cart up the curb, but he’s too thin and rickety to lift the cart that is heavy with all his belongings, therefore blocking traffic. Drivers are getting impatient and honk their horns.

So, how does your character act? How does he react to their comments?

Does he get quiet? Hang his head? Or does he get in their faces? Does he defend the old man? Go to help him? Or does he join in, ridiculing the old man right along with them?

This is how you show the reader who your character is.

Let’s play this game with a minor character.

What about the waitress? Does she love her job or hate it? Does she flirt with the boys? Chew gum? Throw the bill down?  Does she say something about their rude comments?

There is a purpose to everything your characters say and do.  It’s your job as a writer to show characterization to your reader through the words you choose and how you use them.
What can you do to your story to improve your character’s characterization?

Something to think about.  


Marilyn said...

Good topic -- wish I could email it to a few people. I hate when I'm trying to read a story and everything stops while we get a detailed account of some minor incident in the character's life 25 years ago but still don't know anything about who s/he is now.

Was it Stephen King who said 95% of backstory doesn't belong in the book? Amen.

magolla said...

Thank, Ms. M. I wondered if I went a little over-the-top with my example. My main purpose of these blogs is to make people THINK about what they write before they write it.

Totally agree with King, though I would probably put the backstory up at 98% not needed.

Another thing I want to get across is that I have committed nearly every single writing boo-boo ever recorded. :-) Newbie writers aren't alone in their mistakes.