Characterization and Personality
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
1/21/2022 04:32:22 pm
It's an interesting read. As a consumer of novels rather than a creator, I've never really put enough thought into what your process would look like. Thanks!
1/21/2022 04:32:36 pm
Hear hear! This applies not only to book writing but characters in tabletop games as well! I’ll use this advice next time I build a character.
1/21/2022 04:48:08 pm
Every new author should read this. As an avid reader there are so many books I give up on because the characters has no personality, no ARC, and just moving through a story.
1/21/2022 04:51:46 pm
1/21/2022 06:15:18 pm
that is useful
1/21/2022 05:06:31 pm
brilliant.... now has me thinking about what is Lindon's eye scratch ;P
1/21/2022 05:22:36 pm
Thank you for sharing this. I have many times started to write something but they always become short stories. I have trouble with the personality of my characters as well as dialog (feels forced and awkward to me) if you ever feel like giving any more pointers I would love to read them. Thank you again sir!
1/21/2022 06:02:25 pm
Will: The time has come for the FINAL QUESTION. Which of those do you think is more entertaining to read?
1/21/2022 08:46:34 pm
This is great info! I've been working on my own writing and this has been a great help in fleshing out my characters.
1/22/2022 12:25:09 am
A lot of good stuff here. You touch on what I think is the most important in a character: conflict, need, and want. The sheriff **wants** to have a live of his own, but he **needs** to understands that he cares about the town, which ultimately, at the end of the character arc, changes his **want**. This is the typical hero's journey kind of thing.
1/22/2022 05:27:50 am
So good! One of the reasons I love your books is the characters. Thanks for explaining this thought process. It explains why I’m so drawn to Lindon, Yerin, Ruby, Orthos and Eithan. They are such strong characters…they feel like friends now.
1/22/2022 02:42:54 pm
> and nary a mention of eye color
1/22/2022 03:47:21 pm
Please thank your friend for his inspiring you to muse on the craft. Please muse more, and if we're making requests, please do so publically as you have here.
1/23/2022 09:30:42 am
"What would your reader enjoy the most?" If only some other famous authors even cared what their readers enjoy or think. Thank Will for being so awesome.
1/25/2022 07:01:45 am
I struggle with that last question a lot. Mostly because, as a reader, I have varied tastes myself, and asking me what I like is just opening a whole can of worms that's both easy to describe, but hard to adequately verbalize.
This is the sort of info I expect someone to sell on a high priced writing course. And yet, you give it here, all for free.
1/30/2022 06:53:29 am
If I had to choose one I liked most hmm, the elven fighter honestly. Seems like an interesting character. Plus love how they where created based off d&d.
1/30/2022 11:39:23 am
2/7/2022 08:24:55 am
I don't really want to be a writer but I have always got story ideas bouncing around in my head. This seems like great advice if I decide to put something on paper.
2/8/2022 10:25:45 pm
Thanks for the awesome post and the following threads here. The subtle part of it is also that we are writing our own stories and we should do our best to find ourselves at least interesting enough to turn to the next page. Wow dark thought. The last question really is the most important one as when we write we put a bit of ourselves into the story and moreso into the characters we like and the ones we don’t.
2/9/2022 12:13:00 pm
Thanks for the amazing books! Cradle has been my absolute favorite series of books for a long while now. Also, I've always wondered why you chose hunger madra to be white. Wouldn't it make more sense to be black, as in the absence/consumption of light and color?
4/1/2022 01:11:42 pm
Was it Legands and Lattes. It was great.
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Hey, what about those short stories you claim to have already written?
Apparently they're kept here!