On Writing: Characterization

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”

 –  Ernest Hemingway


I apologize. For a blog that’s supposed to be mostly centered around writing, this is only my third post discussing the subject. The problem is that not many people are writing books, and I want to balance posts like these with generally relatable ones. I promise to do a better job of that in the future.

So, then. One of the first steps in writing a novel is writing characters. This is fun, right?

I think it is. I love being able to create a person and make them exactly how I want, from hair and eye color to personality and quirks. But one downside is that when you write a book, you need characters that push the story in the right direction.

More than once, I’ve made the mistake of writing a book around a plot. What I mean by that is I focused on giving the plot all kinds of twists, then created a few generic characters to throw in it. The people I made were like an ugly pair of shoes: they were cheap and happened to fit.

What makes Harry Potter such an amazing series?

When you think about it, it doesn’t really have anything to with the plot. The whole “unbeatable wand” thing is a tad clichéd if you ask me. (Though I’m not saying it should have been omitted in the slightest. J.K. Rowling has an incredible gift for making clichéd things cool again).

No, really the parts that make us emotional—spoiler alert—are when we see Dumbledore getting blasted off the tower, or Harry and Ginny kissing, or Snape crying while clutching Lily’s body.

Those are all powerful scenes…but kisses, crying and killings happen in many stories, and in fantasy novels they’re almost expected.

The difference in this case is that we’re so emotionally attached to the characters—either loving or hating them—which is why we get so into it. That’s the reason why we forget to breathe when we watch Harry walking to his death, or else stand up and cheer when Molly Weasley kills Bellatrix.

So yeah, good characters are important. But they also should fit the story, so they don’t seem out of place. Beyond that, they’re a mix of contrasts that the author has to balance. How much relatability do you sacrifice to make the protagonist unique? How clichéd are you willing to make the villain so people can enjoy them?

And, of course, what I think is the most important rule…

You have to make the characters likable.  Or, at least, some of them. It’s fine—good, even—to throw a few in there that we can’t stand. Just make sure there are some that are at least semi-enjoyable.

Case in point:

A week and a half ago, I was required for my literature class to read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I didn’t enjoy the book, but I was glad I read it, and the movie featuring Tom Hardy (who portrayed Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) was an excellent adaption.

The reason I didn’t like the book was not due to the nineteenth-century writing style—though that was indeed a contributing factor—but because every single character is a different form of what are essentially the most unpleasant human beings ever. The story is full of greedy rich people, prejudiced power holders, drinkers, and backstabbers.

Heathcliff, the main character who we’re supposed to have the most sympathy for, falls in love with a girl who marries someone else. So, to get back at her, he marries her husband’s sister.

At one point in the novel, the sister (Isabella) straight up asks Heathcliff why he married her. And he replies with—and I quote—“You’re my PROXY for PAIN!”

Well, that escalated quickly.

So yes, my meager advice is that if you’re writing a story, put thought into the characters. Pick likable ones to drive the story, people who we wouldn’t mind tagging along with and getting to know. Then form some bad ones who we love to hate, so we can cheer when they fall or be on the edge of our seats when they come close to dominance.

See? Now you’ve got readers hooked. If you have good characters, it’s easier to write a good plot that will work with them, and together they can propel your story into a complex maze that we want to escape. (The Hunger Games comes to mind as the best example of this).

And, to finish it off, good names are important. A name conveys the depth of a person…because it’s the name YOU, the creator of this human being, picked for them. Also keep in mind that the first names of characters are probably most important, because those are most likely the names that they’ll be referred to by for most of the story. We know the name Hermione a lot better than we know Granger.

So, that’s about all I have to say on that subject. I probably won’t post until the end of the week; I’ve started reading Mark of Athena and want to finish it before writing a review. In the meantime, in the spirit of my first post, I’ll leave you with a random fact so you can at least say you learned something.

Most cigarettes, for added flavor, contain ambergris. Which, in case you were wondering, is whale vomit.

Enjoy your week.