On characterization

Just think what we would have missed without the rich, apt, quirky characters of so many worthy authors. Of course, everyone has their favourites, but for me, Dickens is squarely in the spotlight for such a wealth of them. The sad but brave Tiny Tim, put-upon Oliver, the evil while wonderful, avaricious Fagin; doomed Miss Havisham and David Copperfield. Then there’s the resilient, long-suffering Jane Eyre from Charlotte Bronte’s pen, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird – who epitomized the good in man, and countless more noteworthy fictional human beings, enough to fill a large tome.

OliverOnce you have your story/plot figured out, how interesting it can be to people your work with characters. One of the many joys of writing, is the freedom it gives you to do – within reason – whatever you like. Most authors will have a pretty good idea of the genre of their book, and of the beginning, middle and end. Not all though. I’ve read of some writers who only have a rough plan and let their characters pave the path forward. You can read a plethora of ‘how to’ books, some with similar advice, some with original ideas, but, when it comes to YOU as author, the words will emerge from YOUR mind, which – remember, is totally unique.
Over the years, I’ve attended one or two writing groups where a few of the members have had only the woolliest ideas of how to write a novel, and our very intelligent, experienced teacher of one, tried guiding them in the right direction. One man was hung up on sex and paid little attention to characterization; he didn’t stay the course. Another, a sweet-natured woman, wrote a thick book wherein the sun always shone, everyone had irreproachable manners and the characters wouldn’t say boo to a goose. When gently criticized, she lost her temper and departed. Fortunately, most serious writers want to learn, and while I’m ‘rich in years,’ I know that the more I absorb, the more there is to learn….and that’s part of the joy of writing. Curiosity usually pays off, if it doesn’t polish you off….If you push yourself beyond your self-imposed limitations, you’ll doubtless improve. While, self-satisfied writers, I’m sure, are two a penny, serious writers should always strive to better themselves and give due attention to all aspects of their work, from the story-line/plot -. which is vital – to characterization, which could put YOUR book up there with the greats.

greatexpectationsEven if you have a positive idea of what your characters look like, sound like, and what roles they will play in your m/s, do read up on a similar genre to the one you’re planning. Reading is a necessary pleasure when planning a book, and to all those reluctant readers who say “I haven’t enough time…” MAKE SOME. Unless you’re working down the salt mines or are doing hard labour, you really can make time, with careful planning. I know of several authors who have full-time jobs and still write, either early or late in the day. And, if you’re retired, what excuse do you have?

It’s pure common sense to think long and hard (unless struck by one of those ‘Geronimo’ moments…) before committing the bare bones of your plot/story to paper. You will, then, want to flesh the framework with words, and have firmer ideas of your characters. You can either fill a notebook with the ‘history’ of your main characters, or pin a typed and detailed account on the wall in front of your desk. Make it as comprehensive as you can.

Naturally, you will want your book to ‘pass muster’ and be as good as you can make it, so must, obviously, hone your punctuation, spelling and grammar, but all that pales in comparison to the importance of a rattling good story, sub-plot, and WELL-FORMED CHARACTERS..

janeeyremiawasikowska81Often, the characters will propel you forward and even lead you astray, but don’t worry, it’s always – or usually – good to let your characters have their say. When fully drafted, you may even rewrite your work completely, or just change it here and there. There is no hard and fast formula for writing a book that I know of. One person will type out a draft of their work to the very end, while another will proof-read and edit scrupulously as they go along. It’s totally a case of what suits YOU.

Once you have the bare structure of your story firmly in your mind and/or on paper, it will, of course, cry out to be ‘peopled.’ This is part of the fun. For example’s sake, let’s say you’ve decided to write a murder mystery. (It’s quite likely you are a fan of the genre and have read many books on the subject, so you’ll have a rough idea of what is required.) Whether you decide on a ‘Mr.Plod’ policeman who does everything by the book, or a devil-may-care type of personality who’s a Private Investigator, you’ll need to endow him/her with suitable, appropriate qualities. Used in a subtle manner, they could be given a few quirky habits, but one is usually the most sensible. The detective in three of my murder stories had a habit of rubbing his nose now and then. (Sparingly I might add.) He was also intelligent and a bit of an intellectual: enjoying reading and the arts, but also liked keeping fit. All this information can be gradually woven: drip-fed, into the fabric of the story and shouldn’t slow down the PACE – vitally important to remember in a murder/mystery tale.

Atticus FinchPHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES. As you’ll have doubtless noticed, not all men are tall, dark and handsome, just as all the opposite sex are not ravishingly beautiful! In the past, many protagonists – both male and female, were portrayed as being more than easy on the eye: almost perfect. Nowadays, writers seem more uninhibited and sometimes truthful… although it’s obviously a turn-off if the hero/heroine is bald, has a pronounced limp and acne…However you describe ‘him’ or ‘her,’ make them memorable rather than wishy-washy people who merely ‘ghost’ your story. A few readers won’t care what the characters look like, but I think they are in the minority. Personally, I like to see an image in my mind’s eye, but you don’t have to state it peace-meal, like: ‘He was of medium height with grey-blue eyes and sparse, brown hair.’ Try introducing such information gradually:

‘She turned around as the light streamed through the French windows, highlighting (or emphasizing) the tinge of grey in his blue eyes’ Etc., (Or however you like to word it.)


1) ‘Explain yourself!’ he thundered, ‘I haven’t all day…’ You immediately know the man’s impatient/bad tempered. (Or he could have had a really bad day, or be ill?!…)

2) ‘I really don’t know what to say…’Annette blushed scarlet and looked down at her shoes. (self- explanatory).

3) ‘I think you’ll find my plan fool-proof.’ A man who is self-assured; and positive.

And so on. It’s a good idea to practice dialogue and read it out loud to yourself.

Writers often grow fond of their characters and let them dictate the flow of the story, while others almost cause a ‘people-jam’ and introduce too many.

One importance point to take on board is that we all have such varying quirks, habits and traits, and if not over-done, they can be used to make a character endearing or hated. If you are writing a psychological thriller or saga, be aware that people sometimes CHANGE, through circumstances in the story-line or illness. This, of course has to be handled with greater care. It all depends on how deep you want to dig.

Good luck!


© Joy Lennick 2018


3 thoughts on “On characterization

  1. Helen Pollard 16/01/2018 / 10:00 am

    Interesting post, Joy. I believe the characters are the success to any novel – as a reader, if I can’t believe in the characters, I have no interest in the book, no matter how good the plot!

    • joylennick 16/01/2018 / 10:17 am

      Thanks Helen! Its a fascinating business I’m involved in right now. Trying…to sketch out the two main characters of my next book. Fun though. Good luck with your books. x

  2. Very good Joy.. one of the benefits of getting a little older is that we have met and stored the memory of people and all their quirks. For me characters make or break a story..

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