Listening for Characterization

We listen to recognize the characters in our world.

Strong characters are grounded in experience and observation. If we listen to the people around us: our family, friends, acquaintances, and especially any and all strangers we’re fortunate enough to observe (the stranger the better), we’ll learn to see how what people do shows us who people are.

Everything about a character, description, body language, emotional response, orientation, attitude, and perspective, to name a few, we build from our experience of those around us. We need to listen for the snippets that expose the realities of a person.

Listening is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a writer.

Enjoy it. Don’t judge. Learn to measure without developing an opinion. Release your preconceived notions of how things should be, and simply note how people operate. There’s joy in that.

How does someone express concern? How does someone express anxiety? Fear? Anger? Desire? Ignorance? Confusion? Look at the how and ignore the what. The how will open the door to the specific sentiment and will let you adapt the context to the situation in your work.

People aren’t characters; characters are only shadows.

It’s worth saying: if we see the people around us as characters, we’ll miss the complications and contradictions that bring characterization to life. We’ll also alienate people and might even behave without thinking, without a conscious concern for the happiness and well-being of others.

If we care enough to write about humanity, we care enough to be conscious of the humanity we share.

All people are complicated and multifaceted. We may learn to listen well, but we’re not hearing everything. The best of characters may be only a shadow of a human, but the more complication we can show in our stories, the more robust our characters will be. The goal is to develop our characters along specific human trajectories that develop from and work to develop the story.

Strong characterization grows out of contradiction.

Characters show who they are through the ways they respond to the difficult situations an author places them in. The more a situation requires the character to choose between his/her best values and his/her desires, the more emotionally challenging the choice will be.

How do readers know a character’s best values? Readers recognize a character’s best values because of what’s been shown of the character: actions, dialogue (a type of action), and emotional reaction. Readers need to see a character respond to benign situations in specific and realistic ways before they know what to expect from the character. After the reader knows what to expect, the writer can surprise the reader, twist those expectations by raising the stakes, and develop a demanding, character-driven story.

Characters will never be as full as life.

People may change dramatically over time, from context to context, and even in interesting ways within a single conversation. Perhaps the more we change, the more we stay the same. Perhaps not. Whether or not people change in unpredictable and dynamic ways, characters need to change in identifiable but challenging ways. They need to be relatable but not clichéd, complicated but not chaotic, interesting but not confusing.

We listen so our characters don’t have to.

A lot of great dialogue is negative dialogue. People talk past each other, contradict one another and themselves, and argue a point without ever explicitly stating that point. We writers listen to the world around us in order to see multiple sides of an argument and to give voice, through our characters, to multiple perspectives. We listen so our characters embody more than ourselves but not more than their function within the story.

Characters walk a fine line, and the boundaries of characterization are even more fine. Perhaps that’s why developing strong characters can be one of the most enjoyable, most rewarding aspects of writing fiction.

Image by Andrew Seaman from Unsplash.

What are some of the ways you’ve struggled with characterization? What, in your opinion, makes characters difficult or easy to shape? How have you developed a character’s specificity without sacrificing their humanity? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

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