- 6. [The rules] require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
- Show, don't tell.
- —Your English teacher and every creative writing guide ever.
Characterization (Brit. characterisation) is how a character is created and presented in a narrative. It includes the actions, interactions, thoughts, speech, and other traits that make them them. Four major categories of characterization are role in the story, personality, backstory, and appearance.
Characterization may be simple (one- or two-dimensional) or complex (three-dimensional). When writing complex characters, it is generally considered better to show the audience what they're like by means of their behavior (indirect characterization) than to tell the audience what they're like in the narration (direct characterization).
Simple characters aren't inherently bad, but fanfiction writers often don't know how to create deep, sympathetic characters and end up writing flat, unbelievable ones instead. Discrepancies between direct and indirect characterization in fanfiction are nearly always a sign of bad writing.
Character Depth Edit
Stories call for all sorts of characters, from the main character all the way down to the random people on the street. It is important for each character to be given a level of characterization appropriate to their role in the story.
One- and two-dimensional characters are flat or static because they have no conflict and do not undergo character development in the course of the story. Three-dimensional characters are round or dynamic because they have complex motivations, internal and/or external conflicts to overcome, and they do undergo personal growth and transformation.
One Dimension Edit
One-dimensional characterization is appropriate for generics: the nameless extras that only exist to take up space and provide a sense of scope to the world. These generally have no lines and no direct interactions with the main characters, except perhaps to cheer or get in the way. They often find themselves getting killed off to show that a situation is dangerous. Generics require only a simple description (if any) and a basic pattern of behavior consistent with their stated culture, species, or occupation.
Two Dimensions Edit
Two-dimensional characterization is appropriate for bit characters, which exist to play minor roles in the story, whether helping or hindering the main characters. They have few lines and may not appear in more than one scene. They may have an individual history and motivation, and may find their lives changed due to the influence of the main character(s), but do not experience significant development in the story. Bit characters require an individual description and a few defining character traits to establish their motivation and attitude.
Bit characters that recur in a story or series may wind up taking on more characterization and develop into full-fledged supporting characters, and may even qualify as three-dimensional.
Two-dimensional characterization is also appropriate in certain forms of storytelling, such as fairy tales and Greek drama, in which all the characters are archetypes (e.g. hero, villain, trickster, lover) or stock characters (e.g. damsel in distress, gentle giant, manic pixie dream girl). These characters are defined by their role in the story rather than individual identities.
Three Dimensions Edit
Three-dimensional characterization is appropriate—and indeed necessary—for main characters such as the protagonist, their close friends and allies, and the antagonist. These are the characters the audience is supposed to sympathize with and care about enough to want to know what happens to them, so they must be fleshed out enough to resemble real people in all their complexity. Real people have history that shapes them and desires that motivate them. Their appearance and various talents may be important aspects of their self-image, but then again, they may not. They have flaws, and doubt, and inner turmoil. They face challenges they must overcome in order to become wiser, better versions of themselves, and sometimes they will fail. Sometimes, in fact, failure provides more important and lasting lessons than success.
Main characters require a well-developed personality and a backstory that supports it. A physical description and a handful of traits and abilities do not add up to a deep, interesting character, especially if they conflict with each other or are added and dropped as the plot demands. Further, main characters must experience challenges that make them learn and adapt in ways that make sense over the course of the story or series. Failure to transform is the main difference between a three-dimensional character and a two-dimensional character. If more fic writers understood these things, there would be far fewer Mary Sues for the PPC to assassinate.
Character Creation Edit
Good characterization starts with character creation, in original writing, in fanfiction, and in the PPC. Sometimes a character will introduce himself nearly fully fledged into your mind, like Harry Potter did to J.K. Rowling, but usually there will be some effort involved. Making up a unique person from scratch is difficult. There is no one perfect way to go about it, but there are ways that tend to work better than others.
A character's role is essentially what she does in the story. This can include her character archetype, occupation, social class, and the actions she takes to influence the plot. Complex characters, especially the protagonist, will have multiple roles. This is often a good place to start character-building.
A character's personality is how she goes about playing her roles. Is she positive or negative? Eager or unwilling? Cautious or reckless? Does she draw on her religion for strength, or her friends, or herself, or something else entirely? What does she care about the most, and how does this influence her choices? A well-developed personality should allow you to judge how the character will react in any given situation.
A character's backstory addresses why the character does what she does. Nobody exists in a vacuum, so her personality should reflect her upbringing and the important formative experiences in her past, whether she accepts them or rejects them. If she has experienced a trauma, this may even dictate that her reactions to some things will be different than her personality would otherwise suggest. It is important to remember this in order to avoid bad psychology and trivialization. Other traits, such as hobbies, athletic abilities, supernatural powers, etc., should also be grounded in the character's backstory.
A character's appearance is the least important thing about them, but it is still necessary to consider it carefully. If a character is from Japan, for instance, it is not likely that she will have blonde hair and blue eyes. If she does, there must be a logical explanation for it in her backstory. How a character chooses to dress and style her hair, whether she has jewelry, makeup, or tattoos, etc., should reflect her personality and her level of wealth and personal freedom. Her appearance must also be consistent with the world, culture, and time period she inhabits—e.g., hot pink is not a natural Elven hair color and you won't find hot pink hair dye in Middle-earth, so your Middle-earth Elf character should not have hot pink hair.
It is generally advised to avoid starting a character with only a physical description, and it is especially advised to avoid starting with a collection of "cool" powers, but really you can start character-building anywhere as long as you cover all the basics by the time you start writing or, in the case of a PPC character, ask for Permission. If you need help with character creation, PoorCynic has a very nice guide in his blog. If you want to make sure your character is not a Mary Sue, try any of the various Mary Sue Litmus Tests.
Character Writing Edit
Characterization may be given either directly or indirectly. Direct characterization is what is said about the character by the narrator, other characters, or the character herself, and may or may not be reliable. This is also known as telling.
In indirect characterization, the audience must infer what the character is like based on her actions, interactions with other characters (including how the other characters react to her), thoughts, speech, mannerisms, and appearance. This is also known as showing, and is more reliable and thus vastly preferred over telling alone.
Sometimes a character's indirect characterization is notably different from her direct characterization. In these cases, the author may be setting up a discrepancy on purpose to create suspense, or to present a character who is not sane.
However, when the medium is fanfiction, it's far more likely to be a case of bad characterization. A common problem in Mary Sue stories is that the narrative and other characters describe the Sue as kind, caring, talented, etc., but her words and deeds are petty, selfish, and mediocre; or perhaps she has a backstory of trauma or abuse, but in the present she seems completely unaffected except when trying to win the sympathy of her Lust Object. Because showing is so much more powerful than telling, this sort of discrepancy can cause the audience to lose the ability to suspend disbelief, and when that happens they won't see the character as a sympathetic person, but as a wooden puppet of the author. At that point, they'll probably stop reading.