Thursday, 3 April 2014

Cracking Characterisation

The driving force behind any great fiction is a cast of captivating characters. Good characters strengthen and seamlessly contribute to a story’s plot and setting as they interact according to individual competencies and challenges. The best characters are memorable and complex. They strike a chord and, whether their role is to be charming or cruel, they must capture the reader’s compassion. Empathy is key. A reader does not have to like a character but they do need to either identify with, or at least understand, them.  Even characters whose actions are unsavoury it helps for the reader to have an idea of how and why they are the way they are. Characters also need to be believable. Like real people they are multifaceted and have unique histories and vulnerabilities that shape who they are. It is these internal workings which lead a character to think, speak and act in a certain way. Internal conflict can be reflective in dialogue. As the story progresses characters react and grow through their response and the story further develops as a consequence of their actions and growth. Consistency between internal conflict and action is key; however, characters should not become too predictable and should be capable of change and thus, surprise. So, just how does a writer craft such compelling characters?
Before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keypad, it is essential for the writer to know their characters inside and out. Consider what their core conflicts may be. What are their ambitions? What do they want in life? What do they need? What is motivating them within the story? How is their world view and judgement of others reflective of what has previously happened to them? How might this change? 

It is useful to start with a few character sketches. Some may want to start with the basics such as gender, age, mannerisms and a few physical traits, just enough to get a brief visual before moving on to what they do. What are their credentials? What work do they do? What are their hobbies? Examine each character in detail. Consider upbringing and social class. What led them to their current circumstance? What are their fears, sorrows and failures? What causes them to feel guilt, or shame? Are they harbouring a secret? What are their vulnerabilities? What are their strengths and capabilities? Imagine a conversation with your character. Write out a list of questions that will help you get to know them. Question their motives, their behaviour.  Look for clues in details. Where do they live? What type of things do they surround themselves with? What objects do they carry in their hand bag or pocket, and why? What do such details say about them as a person?

Only with an in-depth knowledge of who their characters are and a sound understanding of how they function, can a writer create a vibrant cast of personalities that capture attention and live-on in reader memory.

To sum up, here’s a few C’s of characterisation to remember:
  • Compelling and complex
  • Core conflict and contradiction
  • Create compassion for the charming and  the cruel
  • Consistent yet capable of change
  • Characters’ credentials, capabilities and clues

This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Tomorrow's post will be on D. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.


  1. You definitely tell the what and the why of characterization. Good post.

  2. I tried doing this 6 years ago or so for the book I'm not writing - this makes it all more clear so thanks. Need to get back to it!

  3. Good post on the facets of creating a character. I'm in love with Jennifer Benton!