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Monday, April 14, 2008

Getting Started with Characterization

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

Even when I was a panster rather than a plotter, I still wrote out a character sketch on my main characters. I planned who my characters were going to be before I started writing the story.

For those of you who might be new to writing:

A plotter - is a writer who plans the storyline from beginning to end, including all or most of the highlights and twists in the middle.

A panster - is a writer who writes by the seat of their pants. It just flows out of them as they type. Some pansters may have a general idea of how to begin the story and end it, but they haven't decided all that will happen to get them from the beginning to the end.

All fiction writers have one thing in common whether they are a panster or a plotter - and that's characters. Every story must have characters with physical traits, speech patterns, personality traits, a background, motives for their behavior, and future goals. Without characters, there is no plot or story. Characters that lack any of these elements puts your story in jeopardy of having originality, realism, emotion, or the ability to make readers care about what happens to your characters.

I start out with a Character Sketch form that I created years ago. It helps me get ideas flowing and I modify it as needed for each character. I fill in as much detail as possible on the main characters and only what I need on the secondary characters. As I progress into the story, I may add more details.

Physical Traits
Try to conjure an image of your characters. Remember that they need to be likeable (except maybe the villian), but not perfect. Perhaps your hero has a problem with cowlicks in his hair, premature gray, a scar on his face, a birthmark, or some other physical flaw. Could he have a disability with his hand, arm, or leg? Maybe he could limp, drag his leg, or walk with a unique gate. What is his sense of style? Can he match colors? Does he dress neatly, expensively, poorly?

Likewise, don't be afraid to give your heroine a physical flaw. Even if she is perfect to you, does she see herself as perfect? Maybe she has beautiful curls, but she thinks she looks like an Amazon woman who spent too much time in the rainforest. Remember to use dimples, freckles, moles, scars, anything that can make her unique and memorable.

If you have trouble imagining an image, think of a few celebrities or find a model in a magazine that you can use as an example of your character. Clip it out and put it in your reference folder for that particular novel. It will give you something to refer back to when you need it.

Speech Pattern
Your characters need to speak appropriately for their region, education, personality, and mood swings. A mild mannered character experiencing an attack will seem out of place. He might yell in his defense or be so frightened that he is speechless, but he isn't likely to keep drinking his coffee and continue his table conversation.

A person from a foreign country will have a dialect from that language. Someone who is well educated will use refined language and a strong vocabulary, while an uneducated individual will have a different dialect of dropping the "ing" ending of words, the "r" sound in pronunciation, especially contractions.

Characters with uplifting personalities may tell jokes, have witty replies, and say encouraging things that bolster other characters. Negative characters will always be pessimistic and blurt out warnings, unnecessary caution, and angry responses. Keep the words, phrases, sentence structure and tone true to that character.

Try listening to people's conversation at church, in the mall, and all around you. How do they respond? A child isn't going to sound the same as an adult, and a teenager won't sound like an adult or a child. Writing a good speech pattern for a character requires listening to others.

If you can write a character sketch and determine a speech pattern, then you are half-way there in creating your character. You have the foundation, the bones that will hold up your character in any scene. Now you need to create personality traits and motives behind behaviors, another layer to your character consisting of muscles that will move your reader with emotion. The more you exercise these elements, the greater the muscle will grow in moving your reader to where you want them to go whether it be laughter, grief, anger or suspense.

In a few weeks I'll blog on Layering Personality and Behavior.