For the last few months, I've been helping a friend of mine work on his first novel, and recently we had a long talk about characterization. Specifically, how do you give your protagonist* a strong personality?
I have been sending him my rambling thoughts, and now that the Blog Post Time is nigh, I will share my random musings with you as well.
"Characterization" is how the author shows you who a character is. When Tyrion Lannister talks his way out of a scenario instead of fighting, or when Samwise Gamgee wades into a river rather than let Frodo go off alone, that shows you what kind of person they are.
And "personality" is their personality. I feel like you probably get that one.
The problem you might run into, when you're writing your first novel, is that you don't know your characters very well. Who are they? What would they do in a given scenario? How do you express that in a clear way to the reader?
In order to have strong characterization in your writing, there needs to be a strong character for you to characterize. The character needs to have a unique personality, and it needs to be clear in your head so that you can make it clear in your reader's head.
A lot of times, especially with their protagonist, the writer will end up giving characters a sort of "default personality," meaning the character acts and reacts exactly the way you would expect a normal person to act.
What is their response to a cave full of wolves? Fear.
What is their response to an attractive person hitting on them? Flustered.
What is their response to a spider infestation? Fire.
This makes the character blander than a bread sandwich. When they don't have a strong personality, they're not memorable or interesting. And when the main character of your novel isn't memorable or interesting, you're in trouble.
>How do you fix it?
You give them a strong personality.
Depends on the story you're writing. There are two pieces to this, A and B.
A.) You need the protagonist to be the kind of person who is going to be strongly motivated to pursue whatever goal your story requires. Basically, the hero has to want to be there, doing whatever they're doing.
A cowboy movie following a sheriff should have the kind of person who would choose to be sheriff. Now, that can be a lot of different characters--maybe he hates being the sheriff and wants to give it up, but he can't because he feels responsible for the townsfolk.
Which brings us to...
B.) The protagonist needs to be capable of having a "character arc," meaning they need to be capable of changing as a person over the events of the story.
So this hypothetical reluctant sheriff has the great potential for a character arc, because he could start by planning to leave, and then over the course of the story learn how important the people of this town are to him. At the end, he chooses to stay and keep being sheriff.
>That's cool and all, but that isn't a lot of personality.
No, it isn't. I'm sorry, there's more to go.
A fully fleshed-out person is more interesting than that, so we need some more personality traits. How do we determine those?
There are two broad categories of personality traits as well, so let's divide them into C and D.
C.) What the character has been through.
The things that have happened to the character, their experiences and profession and training, all contribute to their personality.
A warrior-king of a fallen kingdom who has lived his life in exile should probably have a very different personality to a scholar-sorceress who is lost wandering the multiverse.
I don't know why those were the first two examples that popped into my head, but they sound cool, don't they?
D.) How the character was born.
Even among two people with the same experiences, there will be differences. One world-hopping sorceress might be trying to keep her chin up and help as many people as she can, while another might be brooding and cynical, seeing death and destruction anew in every world she visits.
What traits are natural to your character? Who would they be, even if they lost their memory?
>How do you show their personality?
There are a lot of tricks to that--if you're struggling with this, you're struggling with "characterization," and there are a lot of better writers than I who have given answers.
However, I can give you a couple of tips.
First, and most importantly, personality should be clear.
A lot of people, including writers, confuse "lack of clarity" with "subtlety and complexity." They think they're being subtle, but they're actually just being unclear.
I'll go back to Tyrion Lannister. That's a complex character with a lot of subtlety and nuance, but his personality is also EXTREMELY clear. He's very distinct from any other character in those books, and you know when he does something in character versus something out of character.
Your reader should always know what is in character for your protagonist, and when they do something out of character, the reader should notice.
Second, personality should be strong.
Not that everyone in your work should be a dominant alpha werewolf, but that every character should be very much who they are. Your characters should fight and talk and check the mail in-character.
Let's imagine a character shopping in a grocery store that gets robbed while they're inside. How would Hermione Granger handle that? How about Danny Ocean, from Ocean's 11? How would Wonder Woman handle it differently from Batman?
If you know the characters, you can figure out that scenario, because those are strong characters with clear personalities.
>Yeah, but you didn't answer my question. Seriously, how do you show personality?
A lot of it is having a clear personality in the first place, but some other tips are giving them vivid actions or props that tie into their unique traits and attributes.
Imagine, if you will, you're rolling a D&D character who is an Elven Fighter.
This race/class combination suggests a few things. One, as an elf, they've probably lived hundreds of years already. Two, as a fighter, they're trained with weapons.
So you give them some habits, items, or common behaviors associated with both of those.
[They love beautiful weapons and can't help but stop and admire them, even in the middle of combat. (Elf = love of craftsmanship and beauty, Fighter = weapons.)]
[Each of their weapons has a long and storied history, and among humans would be kept in a museum, but they see these things as normal. Their belt-knife is a jeweled dagger once used to assassinate a human king. They use it to slice bacon.]
[They're very particular about the etiquette of battle, which can even lead to them introducing themselves to enemies and waiting for a polite response. Rudeness is punished with ruthless efficiency, as they have desecrated the honor of battle.]
See? The character's coming along already, and nary a mention of eye color.
After that, though, you also want to give them 1-3 traits that have nothing to do with being an elf or being a fighter, but still connect to their core personality.
[Maybe this person has a scar across their eye that people assume they got in battle, but they were actually scratched by a cat as a child, and are now afraid of cats. They don't tell anyone this story, because they are afraid others will think less of them, which suggests their reputation as a warrior is very important to them.]
Each of these things changes how the character acts, makes them distinct even from other, similar characters, makes them memorable, and makes them easier to write in a strong, consistent way.
And then there's the FINAL QUESTION, the one you should be asking yourself at every stage of this process and the entire writing process, but which I left till last to emphasize its importance.
This is the question that should guide your every decision. Ready? Here it is:
"What would your reader enjoy the most?"
If you're writing a novel to entertain your reader, you should make your decisions based on what your readers would find entertaining.
"Hm. How do I decide between making my character cheerless and bitter versus making them upbeat and naive?"
The time has come for the FINAL QUESTION. Which of those do you think is more entertaining to read?
A lot of times, just asking that question will solve your problem on its own.
*protagonist = Main Character
The Knight Progress:
"I couldn't leave it all to the power of friendship."
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