Characterisation is everything in fiction. Readers love a compelling story, but only if a character’s emotional journey is at its core. Ray Bradbury says this: ‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.’
So, how do you write characters the reader will emotionally connect to? How do you describe them, make them believable, and guarantee the reader will care about them (even if they don’t like them)?
Describing Your Characters
It can be tempting to stuff a novel’s worth of characterisation into one paragraph when a character is introduced, but the more you write, the more you’ll discover that characters need to be shown as well as told. You’ll cut the mention of each character’s hair and eye colour and the scene in which your protagonist looks in the mirror and reflects on her own appearance as well as her inner being, and you’ll try not to use so many adjectives.
Characters are built from habits, motivation, ways of walking and talking, their emotionality, their past, their people, likes and dislikes, and yes, physical appearance.
Here are some physical character descriptions I’ve found effective because they go beyond the ordinary, give you a sense of the character within, or create a vivid image:
‘Her eyebrows were so blonde they were almost invisible, making it difficult for her to look angry, apologetic or quizzical.’ – Joe Dunthorne, Submarine
‘I zoomed back out and tried to look at my own face as if I were a stranger on the internet seeing it for the first time. It looked round and white, the eyebrows like overturned parentheses, my eyes averted from the lens, almost shut.’ – Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends
‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her, I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced; sickly looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know.’ – Han Kang, The Vegetarian (Translated by Deborah Smith)
These examples include a combination of showing and telling. Showing: ‘Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short.’ Telling: ‘I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.’ These combine to reveal an interesting relational dynamic: Han Kang’s POV character wanted to marry someone as straightforward as possible and perceived from Yeong-hye’s appearance that she fit the bill.
The three examples also all have a strong sense of the POV character’s personal viewpoint. The Joe Dunthorne quote reveals that the POV character is struggling to read this person. The Sally Rooney quote is the only one in which the protagonist describes herself. The use of the word ‘parentheses’ is apt because the protagonist is a writer and the fact that she tries to look at herself ‘as if a stranger’ shows she lacks confidence in her sense of self.
In this first scene of Conversations with Friends, Rooney also describes the protagonist’s motivation (‘I felt excited, ready for the challenge of visiting a stranger’s home,’), habits (‘already preparing compliments and certain facial expressions to make myself seem charming’), body language (‘I think I laughed and nodded a lot’). She reveals her reserved way of speaking, using another character as a point of contrast. ‘She’s amazing, isn’t she? said Bobbi. I like her, I said.’ She reveals through conversation that the protagonist is a communist, went to a convent school but isn’t religious, and that she’s a poet. In just a few pages, we can see the character, hear her, and begin to understand her.
Writing Three-dimensional Characters
Any successful author will tell you how important it is to know your characters back to front – their histories, psychologies, interests, likes and dislikes, etc. – even if little of this information makes it into the final manuscript. See this quote from Gillian Flynn:
‘For Gone Girl, I knew Nick and Amy had to be very believable, so I made iPod playlists for them, and knew their Netflix queues. I wrote scenes of them in childhood from other people’s points of view: A scene of Amy in high school, written from her friend’s POV, or Nick’s kindergarten teacher writing about parent-teacher conference night. Stuff I knew I’d never use, but would help me flesh them out.’
So, once you’ve written a psychological profile and life timeline for your protagonist, chosen their desert island discs, free-written their eulogy and decided who you’d cast to play them in the film version, how do you use this to flesh out their character in the novel itself? I asked BPA’s editor J. David Simons, who focuses on literary and character-led fiction, for his advice:
If a character is a photographer then if there is an engaging moment in the novel, the character will want to take a photograph of it, and they will probably want to frame it, and they will probably want to hang it on a wall if it has emotional value to them, and later on in the novel, another character might come along, an ex-lover perhaps and still see their photograph on that person’s wall and say ‘I see you’ve still got that picture of the two of us up there’ and that comment will describe a life, and time passing, and a relationship changing, and feelings changing (or perhaps not) and so you have given depth to a scene, and fleshed out your character not simply being a photographer but someone who will do what an actual photographer might do within a relationship. And it is the same with any character that you have created – if they are a child scarred by divorce, how does that affect their relationships in later life? If they are described as being brought up as strict Catholics, or Muslims or Jews, how do these values affect their views later on? Each time your character appears, you need to be able to get inside their psyche and work out how they would behave in such a circumstance or what they would say. And once you are able to do this, then you could end up with that wonderful experience of having such well-rounded characters that when you put them in a scene they will take on a life of their own and do all the things and say all the words they are supposed to without any prompting from the author.
Film Director Mike Leigh prepares for a movie by taking all the main actors away for a few weeks and working totally on their characters with them – who are they? What is their background? How have they suffered in their lives? What are their tastes and influences and emotional buttons and so on? He doesn’t give them lines to learn. Instead when he starts to film the movie, he tells his actors what is to happen in a particular scene and lets them get on with it. And by then the actors know their characters so well that they will interact with each other in the way that they are supposed to without the need for a script. And it should be the same for writers. Know your characters and ensure that they think, talk and behave according to the life you have created for them.
All characters should have flaws, but to ensure the reader connects with your character, their flaws need to be rooted in something. It’s easier to forgive a character if you can see that her flaw was born in a past experience or was passed down by a parent. If you’re looking to build sympathy for a heavily flawed character, show them being hurt by someone else.
It’s hard to settle into a book when a character appears irredeemable but it seems that the writer wants you to like them! If you’re writing a flawed hero, the reader needs hope that the person will redeem himself. If you’re writing a villain, they need to have the sense that they’re not supposed to like the character, that they’re on the same page as the writer.
Characterisation of your protagonist and each supporting character should occur throughout the novel, in every scene they appear, partly because it takes a long time to truly get to know someone but also because all good characters change.
They were afraid of commitment and now they’re open to love. They were shy but now stand tall. They wanted to give up on their dream and now they’ll do whatever it takes.
You might have a good sense of the internal change, but in order to show and not just tell the reader that this person has developed, you need to offer some ‘re-characterisation’. Do they walk differently or have they changed their hairstyle? Is their dialogue more punchy … or perhaps slower, more thoughtful? What habits have they dropped or picked up?
Author Sarah Waters says, ‘Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story.’
It’s important not to over-describe minor characters. This can actually make them less solid rather than more so, because the reader will struggle to remember too many things about them. But one brief description can reveal a lot about a person. Take a look at this description of a professor – who isn’t important enough to be named – in The Idiot by Elif Batuman:
‘The linguistics professor, a gentle phonetician with a mild speech impediment, specialized in Turkic tribal dialects. Sometimes he would give examples from Turkish to show how different morphology could be in non-Indo-European languages, and then he would smile at me and say, “I know we have some Turkish speakers here.’
The purpose of this paragraph is to establish the protagonist’s identity as a woman of Turkish heritage living in the US. Still, the professor is the hero of his own story, someone who overcame his speech impediment to teach linguistics, who has a humility and a kind attitude towards his students that could easily come across as patronising. He is a minor character but a complete person.
To Sum Up
There is much more that could be said about characterisation, but the best advice I can offer is to know your characters deeply, describe them with specificity and pay attention to the ways in which they change. It can take a number of drafts to bring your characters to life. As writer Juliet Marillier says, ‘To write convincing characters, you must possess the ability to think yourself into someone else’s skin.’