Terrible Writing Advice – Chapter 40: CHARACTERIZATION

Just like being a person of character will get you nowhere in life, having great characterization will get you nowhere in writing stories. Learn to avoid the biggest pitfalls of having great and interesting characters that will emotionally invest the audience in the story so instead a writer can focus on what’s really important which is padding everything out in order to maximize the potential of the franchise.

My Honest Thoughts on Characterization

If you are an amateur author, it is helpful to keep in mind that your first draft will likely have very poor characterization. This is completely normal even for more experienced writers. It often takes a few tries to nail down a character properly in terms of character traits unless one is a particularly talented discovery writer. Writing solid characterization takes time to refine over the course of many drafts.

Characterization itself comes in two forms I touched on briefly in the video: direct and indirect. Most writing guides advise indirect characterization as it tends to lean more towards showing rather than telling. The worst pitfalls of characterization are usually a result of direct characterization when the audience is told a character possesses a trait and then is never followed through on. “Jeff Dangerseek is levelheaded!” says the story on page 1 before on page 20 Mr. Dangerseek flies into a rage at the first minor insult from Duke Devilmer. This really undercuts what limited characterization the story already has on offer by offering conflicting information. It would be different if this was told in first person with Mr. Dangerseek constantly bragging about this level headed nature while the story shows us through indirect characterization why this isn’t the case. In this way, the “direct” characterization Mr. Dangerseek tells us about himself becomes indirect by showing us an aspect of his personality (both arrogance and insecurity in this case).

Excellent characterization is, as I mentioned in the video, found through opportunities presented at many different points in the narrative. Hence why it often takes several drafts to really hone characterization. Opportunities are everywhere, but those opportunities are hard to spot when a writer is still trying to fill in huge moon sized plot holes and get the rest of the story fixed enough to at least look somewhat presentable. This itself can be a trap as a well plotted novel can be boring if the characterization is poorly presented.

The best opportunities for characterization tend to be the most subtle. Little things are usually what stand out to me the most. A character facing down a corrupt lord beating a helpless slave is old hat now. We expect our noble hero to partake in grandiose gestures of heroism. A gritty anti-hero who spits in the face of duplicitous nobles and the corrupt clergy is pretty typical, but the audience will take notice when he stops to give a dying thug a drink as a last request. Small gestures like this can really humanize a character a lot more than killing a thousand dragons. Again, advancing the plot is meaningless without audience emotional investment in the characters. Ideally, the story should both characterize and advance the plot.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it just takes time to flesh out a character. This is why movies often suffer from poor characterization. It takes time for the audience to get a handle on a character. There are exceptions of course. Sometimes the writing is so good that an audience will instantly know what a character is all about and start to root for them. This is the exception though, not the rule.

I guess I should also cover why I’m not overly fond of character sheets/profiles. So first keep in mind that this is “just like my opinion man”. If character profiles work for you then awesome. For me, I find them of limited utility. Character profiles are like story outlines; great as a blueprint, but just as no plan survives first contact with the enemy neither does every element of a character profile make it into the story. I tend to discovery write most of my side and minor characters so I have had to throw away so many character profiles that I barely use them now. I feel that a lot of amateur authors would be better off if they ditched character profiles and just tried writing their characters discovery style.

I also touched upon everyman type characters in the video. There are so many stories I have read both amateur and professional that suffer from what I call ‘Bland Protagonist Syndrome’. Sometimes this is by design. It is true that everyman type characters tend to be more relatable than superman types. I would even argue that the main character in Aeon Legion is this. Regardless, it still helps for the protagonist to have a few character traits. Sometimes I think this can be as simple as a writer asking themselves “how would a sane person react to this situation?” Much like other archetypal characters, a writer can use these as a foundation, but must build something on top of the archetype.

An important thing to remember is that the audience connects with characters who either have a compelling problem, a strong motive to achieve a specific goal, or are very proactive when confronted with an obstacle. If a writer finds themselves struggling with characterization then they consider experimenting by changing the situation to re-frame the scene in a way that allows for better characterization. Don’t be afraid to scrap secondary and minor characters if they don’t work and replace them with ones that do. Most of all, be patient. Steadfast determination, attention to detail, patience to find opportunities, and courage to seize those opportunities are both outstanding qualities for a character to have, but are also essential for a writer as well.