Characterization – The Golden Core of a Novel

Good characterization I believe makes or breaks the novel – it can either be the novel’s thriving soul or its black hole into oblivion. Earlier this week I finally began the construction of the first full novel I’ve attempted in a long, long time, not previously having the opportunity (or desire) to do so before, and ended up churning out 40 pages’ worth solely of character development.

This might sound like overkill, but a lot of it is choppy and haphazard, since it’s only for my use – it’s really not as much writing as it appears. Most importantly, I can say that I fully know all of the characters – their habits, their hair colours, probably even their shoe size. I can now rattle off what each would do when faced with any situation. Being able to do this is the key to unlocking a novel whose cast will stand out in the minds of readers!

Any sketching, pre-writing and development notes you feel like you should take, do it. Characterization is so vital and time that goes towards it is valuable. If you end up writing a hundred pages or more of character development, that’s a chunk of your novel already done. All that’s left is to translate it into action and meld the characters with their story, which will now be so much simpler since you’ve grown accustomed to the characters – their mannerisms, speech and inner machinations will be pretty much a second skin.

A few tips that will might help to keep a character and a novel succinct and coordinated:

  • In-depth and intricate details aren’t usually necessary on minor characters. If they only show up in one instance, we don’t need to know a textbook’s worth of history about them. Or even a large footnote’s worth, for that matter.
  • It is good, however, to have a small excess bit of information about every notable character, in case the need-to-know arrives naturally in the story – for example, their general appearance and a bit about their personality or what their role is. But remember that not all of this has the show up in the final product. If characters or notes you find interesting end up not being mentioned in-novel, you can always post them as trivia, or give that character their own short story later.
  • Remember – characters are part of the plot, not clots. If you’re not directly inspired to, definitely do not feel like you need to shoehorn in a character solely to be a romantic interest. It’s always obvious and it (almost) always docks points from a book’s review. Romantic interests need to have a fluidity in the story that matches the rest of the cast. Just being pretty is not enough.
  • Write characters who appeal to you. If they bore you or if you feel a tinge of lackluster in your mind just thinking about them, maybe rework them. It’s likely they will bore the audience as well if their own creator doesn’t even like them.
  • On that point, don’t be ashamed or afraid to write a character of a darker or more sinister nature. You would be surprised at how a vicious antagonist or anti-hero can earn a book its place in literature.

Hopefully these will help you on your writing journey as well. Writing, especially in the early stages, can be extremely trial-and-error with spans of tedium, but moreso they are like an experiment in a lab – the more you are versed in what you’re working with, the better the results will be.

[S. M., April 2018]

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