The thing to know about characterization is that it is difficult to learn it from someone who does it effortlessly. They tend not to know how they do it and they sure can’t tell you how to fix it because they’ve never done it wrong. You learn more from your mistakes than you’ll ever learn from doing it right instinctively.
So, where to begin? There are so many ways characterization can go wrong and hundreds of ways to put it right. I can’t cover it all and I sure can’t include all the ways to fix anything that may be wrong but here are a few tips. I've learned this the hard way and am still learning it.
Oh, and I’m going to put the bottom line right up front. Nothing, and I mean nothing is terminal. You can fix everything. You would be amazed at what a difference it makes to just add a single sentence or paragraph revealing the character’s motivations. Sometimes, that’s all that is necessary.
There are two main complaints culled from rejection letters that I’m going to detail here:
How to fix them
You don’t have to reveal the character’s entire motivation, goals and conflict, but you do need to reveal the character’s initial goal, motivation and conflict. Let’s say your heroine has a goal to find her sister’s murder and her motivation is to save her brother who has been accused of the murder. This is probably a bad example, because you probably do need to show all of that pretty much in the first paragraph, but—think of it this way: maybe that’s not her short-term, obvious goal when we meet her on page one.
On page one, you could introduce her talking to a private investigator, trying to get him to help her because she believes she can’t do this on her own. So her initial, starter goal is to get this man to help her. That’s the goal and motivation you need to make clear on page one.
The rest of it about her brother and all can be exposed later in the story.
One of the biggest, relating factors a lot of writers make is to hide motivations or goals because they want to surprise the reader later. In this example, the writer may want to hide the fact that the brother has been accused of the murder until a later, more dramatic moment.
That’s fine, but what that means is that you must give the reader a substitute goal and motivation. Don’t give the reader no motivation or goal, figuring either it should be obvious to the reader or that you’ll explain later. Later never comes.
If the reader doesn’t understand what is initially driving the character to do what s/he is doing, then you’ve lost the reader from page one. You have created the classic “unsympathetic” character that makes the editor complain, “I couldn’t get into your character”.
Oh, and one last thing: you have to do this for your secondary characters, too, or risk being accused of having stock or cardboard secondary characters. Every character has to have motivation and goals.
This may seem odd or counter-intuitive but stick with me for a moment. You’ve introduced the hero and you’re in his POV when you introduce him to the heroine. Sometimes this can work, but it almost never works if your heroine is gorgeous and he sees her as gorgeous and lusts after her right off the bat.
I told you: counter-intuitive.
Here is the problem. Most readers can’t relate to gorgeous. So if the reader’s first introduction to the heroine is the hero’s view of her as this beautiful, perfect woman, she’ll be forever etched in the mind of the reader as a plastic Barbie doll they totally cannot relate to. And they will hate her just like they hate every other gorgeous, perfect woman they meet (because obviously that beautiful woman will also be a snob and bitch and probably a ho, too).
There are a lot of ways to fix this. First, don’t make the heroine (or hero) so damn perfect. That’s the best solution. Give your characters flaws, both mental and physical. Flaws make humans human and they will make your characters more real and therefore more sympathetic.
Then, when the hero first sees the heroine, make him see some kind of flaw that will make her seem human. And vice versa. Make them NOT instantly lust after each other (for a change). Make them notice something they really hate in the other person, and then realize that despite it, they are still attracted to them… (This is the method Jennifer Crusie uses the most and it works for her.)
If you can’t or won’t do that, try this: introduce your hero, show his starter goals and motivation. Introduce your heroine and do the same. THEN introduce the two of them to each other, after the reader already knows them and sympathizes with them. But it’s still better for them to see flaws and then notice something attractive about the other character, otherwise, it’s still plastic people, Ken and Barbie, again. However, I know some folks just can’t or won’t write characters who aren’t pristine & perfect physical specimens.
This probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.
Yes, it should be a bad moment, plot-wise, and maybe emotionally, too, but do not (for Heaven’s sake) show your hero or heroine being just horrible. Do not make the mistake of thinking that showing your heroine full-out angry is just showing that your heroine is feisty and sticks up for herself. Not. She’s just an out-of-control bitch.
If the first introduction to the hero or heroine is when they are completely out of control angry, I can almost guarantee you will lose our audience right there.
Think of it this way: what is your reaction when you go out in public and stumble upon a scene where someone is yelling at another person? Does it make you like the person doing the yelling or does it make you uncomfortable and sort of not like the angry person and wish they had better self control?
Well, that’s the same problem.
You can, however, get away with it if you are Jennifer Crusie and are showing the heroine as angry but with a sense of humor or in a funny way. That is the key. The humor will offset the anger. In fact, you can pretty much show your hero or heroine in any sort of terrible state as long as it is funny.
If it is not funny, then you are much better off showing some other character haranguing the hero or heroine because that character will be hated by the reader while your hero and/or heroine is instantly loved for showing self-control because s/he didn’t lose their temper, too. Your hero/heroine is perceived to be the rational, reasonable one. This is good.
This can be less important for heroine, but really, you have to consider it for both hero and heroine. You don’t want either character to appear to be weak.
Fathers are bad for heroes. If your hero has been having problems with his father (or worse, his mother), do not place the hero in an initial scene where the father (or mother) has the upper hand because your hero will then forever be perceived as weak and undeserving of hero status. Sure, if you work very, very hard, you may be able to pull it off, but it’s tricky and probably can’t be easily done, particularly in a romance. The hero will just seem weak. Of course, if you are D.H. Lawrence, this may be the angle you are going for with your downtrodden hero, but that’s why it’s mandatory reading in college and leaves you feeling ready to slit your wrists. Life and heroes do not have to be hopeless. Trust me.
You can, sort of, show a downtrodden heroine, but it’s kind of hard then to give her enough of a spine to get your book published. Most editors and readers don’t like pathetic heroines anymore. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t show someone being mean to her, and her taking it, but in the heroine’s head, you need to have her recognize what is going on and plotting to put an end to it. She must be making a decision to put an end to it. That is her saving grace.
How to fix them
Flaws are important but they can’t just be “stock flaws”. You have to make each and every character in your story unique. People are unique and characters have to be unique and that isn’t just creating some completely unrealistic physical combination of eye/skin/hair color. There are basic types of people—the cheerleader type, the fighter pilot type, and so on—but while they have a certain set of characteristics, they also should have something different that makes them human. The cheerleader could have scarred, ugly hands because she makes jewelry on the side (melting bits of metal can be pretty damaging to your hands even if you are careful).
Caution: don’t make the unique thing some “save the earth” kind of quality because it’s just Mr. Perfect Irritating. That will make them a clichéd character with a clichéd “unique” quality. Give people weird hobbies or weird traits, or nice traits and hobbies but done in an off-the-wall way that fits with that character’s cluster of traits. But not too weird or it will look like you’re trying too hard.
Because here’s the other thing: certain career and personality types have certain “clustered traits” because you need those traits to BE that personality. For example, a fighter pilot will be a risk taker and maybe an adrenaline junkie. S/he is literally cool under fire. Use THOSE traits when you think about his or her hobbies and make it fit, otherwise, the hobby or unique thing will just seem tacked on and the reader will always feel like it just doesn’t mesh.
The fighter pilot, when off work, may lead rock climbing expeditions in Washington State because that also involves taking risks and gets the adrenaline pumping. That would be something that readers could see “meshing” with that character type and yet making the character unique. It builds on the different facets of the character type. Or, they could be a musician because they like the high they get when performing in front of an audience.
What you are looking to do is “round out” the character and provide depths to the traits you’ve shown to the reader. This is what will then elevate the fighter pilot from a “stock” caricature to a real character. You have to show, however, which trait in that character’s “real life” you are highlighting with the hobby or it really will seem tacked on and just done for effect. It needs to make sense on a “gut level” that this character really would do this.
This is sort of a repeat, but it’s true. Even secondary characters have to have motivations and goals for what they do. Each one of them. If they don’t, they just become stock characters that no one cares about. Even the maid who comes into the room to dust should have some uniqueness, be it a squint, a limp, or gorgeous eyes, and if she interacts with anyone, then she’ll need a goal. If she’s in more than one scene, she’ll need motivation, too.
Make all your characters real people with real trait clusters and real motivations. And for crying out loud, don’t settle for stock answers. Don’t make your bad guy the bad guy because he was abused as a child. We’re all sick to death of hearing that and there are plenty of abused children who do not grow up to be murderers.
It is what made this person decide their actions were the only actions possible that will make that character rise above the cliché. There must be a moment when that decision was made and the reader must understand it.
This is a huge problem. A lot of times, writers make their characters do, say or think certain things because the plot needs that character to do, say or think that thing at that time. But you have to answer one question: Would that character, with his/her unique cluster of character traits, really act/do/say that?
Going back to that fighter pilot, s/he is not suddenly going to be afraid of or back away from a stressful situation. They’ve been trained to handle stress and they like the adrenaline high. They’re probably going to love creating stressful situations, in fact, to get that rush.
So you could make that pilot go nuts because he’s told he can’t do anything and he has to sit on his hands while others handle it (the classic kidnapping case where the FBI tells the family to sit still while they handle most of it) but making that same pilot very passive and just happily sit there waiting for other people to take action is just not realistic for that personality pattern. It will make your reader “drop out” of the character and find it hard to “get back into the character’s head”.
You need to make sure your characters stay in character even if it does screw up your plot.
This is trickier but it’s a flaw that can make your characters seem to have less depth and reality. In every scene, you are in some character’s point of view, unless you are in the author’s POV, in which case that’s a different situation altogether.
If you are writing a scene from the hero’s point of view, and he’s this rough-tough Southern boy who left school at seventeen to work an oil rig, he is totally not going to think of or describe the heroine in terms like: She had aquamarine eyes the color of a tropical sea and glorious hair that flamed like the sunset. He’s really not going to think that if he works an oil rig in the north Atlantic where the sea and sky are pretty much leaden gray and darker leaden gray.
Be very, very mindful of whose POV you are in and how that character would describe things. Do not drop out of the character’s perspective to insert a beautifully poetic description that is entirely inappropriate for that character. It will destroy the credibility of the character and you, as the author.
Also, a corollary to this: while you are in the heroine’s point of view, don’t have her think: I need to brush my long, silky blond hair. Because no one on this planet thinks of their own physical attributes in this way. You can do it to be funny, though, if you’re in the POV of a stuck-up bitch because the reader will know you are poking fun at the bitch.
Books by Amy Corwin