The Art of Characterization
An essay on extending the pitch of human possibility
The art of characterization is the art of presenting the people who populate your story.
If plot is the bones upon which the meat of your story hangs, then surely characters are the heart and soul.
“A writer creates a character as a way to reveal and emphasize consciousness — to extend the pitch of human possibility,” as the novelist Don Delillo so perfectly put it — to which I add this:
Characterization is ultimately a depiction of motive.
Just as in real life we better comprehend a person when we comprehend the motive behind what makes that person act in the way she or he does, so too in fiction.
And since there is no way to actually perceive the psyche or spirit of another human except by means of physical manifestations — which is to say, their deeds and words (“words” not in the sense of philosophical pronouncements, but words in the context of actions) — it is through such physical manifestations that characters are best expressed and developed.
To know a fictional character well is to know what motivates that character, as distinguished from not being able to go beyond surface-level actions.
The word motive comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move or act.”
The motives are what drive the characters — a reflection of their desires and values and valuations.
This is the reason that in literature, characters and character traits are best expressed through the movements and actions and the dialogue that the writer assigns to her or his characters.
This is also why the act of describing a character’s thoughts and feelings do not alone develop a character — though it’s important to note as well that these passages of description and pure exposition do definitely help, and this is why telling, as against showing, does indeed have (contrary to what you’ve likely had hammered into your head in any writing class or book you’ve read) a legitimate and even necessary place in storytelling.
The actions that a writer assigns to her or his characters must be blended in — or synthesized, as the philosophers like to say — with an understanding (on the writer’s part) of the character’s motives, and the reader, in turn, comprehends by means of the character’s actions. This process is roughly analogous to the way in which a story’s plot projects that story’s theme: the concrete events of the story are deployed in such a fashion that readers are able to discern the ideas behind the concretes. These ideas are the abstract theme.
To present a realistic and believable character, the writer must begin with a definite idea of the motives which move her or his character’s actions, and then after the writer writes down those actions — not losing sight of why the character is acting in that way (i.e. what the motive behind the action is) — the reader in reading it can discover what’s at the basis of the character.
When the writing is done well, the reader can contemplate and talk about and psychologize over the characters the writer has created, discussing the motives of these characters as if these fictional creations were real people.
It’s been said that one of the truest tests of a timeless story or novel or play or movie is when we can discuss the fictionalized characters as though they were real people: we can plumb their psyches and puzzle over the things that move and motivate these fictional creations, just as we do with real and living humans. This gauge is in my estimation entirely accurate: it is one of the truest tests of durable, timeless literature.
“This, I’m certain,” we can say, “is why Henrik acted that way, and that is why Mikael responded thus, and it’s also why Lisbeth, who in my opinion is the most complicated and interesting person by far in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — and that’s saying a lot, because all the major characters are excellent and well-developed and well-written and the acting of each and every cast memember is stellar— felt this way, and it all makes perfect sense….”
“Even though Rocky Balboa ultimately loses the fight, the first Rocky movie nonetheless gives the audience such an overwhelming feeling of triumph at the end because the character of Rocky Balboa is entirely realistic and likable, and he has so much heart and so much strength of will, and he’s also sweetly dispositioned and admires his opponent Apollo Creed —admires him so much that he considers it an honor to even be in the ring with Apollo Creed.”
“Elrond, the half-human, half-elven character who’s so real and living in the Lord of the Rings book comes off in the movie as nothing like the Elrond Tolkein created. As the movie presents him, Elrond is not only inconsistent with how Tolkein made him — so human and sympathetic — but he’s also in the movie not even believable, on any level, to say nothing of likable, which in the movie he’s not. He’s completely two-dimensional in the movie, a cardboard character at best.”
“I found Michael Corleone’s behavior in Godfather 3 completely out-of-character and contrived compared with how he was in the first two Godfather movies.”
This last thing isn’t meant to suggest that writers should present characters with only one or two or even three facets, or with only one or two or three characteristics or passions. It’s only meant to say that the writer must unify all facets that the writer does assign to each of her major characters. And the more facets a writer assigns to her characters, the more complicated the task. The reason this is important to emphasize is that a fictional character will only come across as an actual integrated, realistic human-being when everything or at least the preponderance of things that the character does are consistent internally: consistent with how the writer has developed, explained, and presented the motives behind the character’s actions.
In this context, it’s also vital to note that fictional characters, like human-beings in real life, can legitimately contain within them deep conflicts and contradictions — very often, in fact, these are the things that make literary characters more interesting and complex — yet even then these conflicts and contradictions must be internally consistent: specifically, with how the writer has developed and expressed the character, so that when it’s well-done, the reader thinks, in essence:
“This is the conflict that character is fighting against — I grasp it. I grasp the roots of his situation. I understand this character more fully because I understand not only what he’s struggling with but also why he’s struggling with it. And the reason I understand The What and The Why is that the writer has successfully sythesized this character’s motives with his actions, and the writer has explained and executed it well. The writer has disclosed what is at the character’s base, and in so doing the writer has shown us a psychologically rich and real and complicated character.”
When a character doesn’t feel believable or real or doesn’t quite make it off the page, it means that the details offered about her or him and the actions assigned — the concreted actions and the motives behind the character’s actions — haven’t been adequately explained or unified into a completed whole.
Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (the second of the original Star Wars movies) is, I think, an example of one such.
At the end of the first Star Wars movie — not, incidentally, a series I personally did not care for very much, though all my friends and teachers did — Luke Skywalker emerges early on in The Empire Strikes Back as a heroic, much-matured, strong, confident, likable character. And yet, and yet …
The moment he and R2D2 fly to the so-called Dagobah System, the confident, heroic, much-matured, and likable Luke Skywalker instantaneously de-matures into a petulant, unlikable child — totally inconsistent with (and unworthy of) the cool and confident hero he embodied pretty well in the first 45 minutes of the movie.
This is also totally beneath what he ultimately becomes in the last of the original three Star Wars movies: Return of the Jedi.
Do not mistake this sort of thing for complexity of character. It’s flawed writing — a character unintegrated and inconsistent — i.e. two different characters mashed together like play-doh.
The skill in creating and developing strong characters consists largely of catching character inconsistencies during the rewriting.
Just as acting is reacting, so writing is rewriting.
In literature, a character can only be expressed by means of what the writer writes down. Yet behind every specific written act, there’s also a context that the writer has developed throughout the entirety of the story — a context which, as it grows, creates more than the writer expresses in actual words.
In this sense, character development can be described as cumulative.
No action exists in a void, completely without context.
Careful readers are automatically on the watch for the meaning of every line and action:
“I’m being introduced to a new character,” good readers in essence say to themselves. “Let us see what moves this character.”
This sort of reader is continually making evaluations, usually at the subconscious or even unconscious level, thinking as she reads: “From what motive or motives do this character’s action stem? What are the ideas driving that particular line of dialogue, and this one?”
This is a large part of the pleasure of reading fiction.
Good writers are those writers who deliver answers to these questions — though it almost goes without saying that this, too, exists along a spectrum: there are degrees and levels to which writers, even excellent writers, consistently fulfill this function, as there are degrees and levels to which readers, even excellent readers, consistently fulfill this level of attention and focus.
Here’s an example of how brief dialogue can very effectively develop two characters in five seconds:
“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”
— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Observe here how, in all of two lines and even without any context at all, we as readers are able to get a definite sense for these characters. We’ve already started to know them and, speaking for myself, want to know them even more because they seem so interesting and realistic — realistic and yet stylized. The words Ray Bradbury assigned to them — i.e. the way in which he had these two characters express themselves — elevate these characters to that level.
Let us note also and be encouraged by how quickly this can be done.
Those who speak well speak briefly, wrote Dostoevsky.
As in actual life, humans are defined, gauged, and evaluated by what they say and do, so in literature characters are also defined, gauged, and evaluated by what they say and do.
Only when we understand why a person does what she or he does do we begin to understand the person. And we understand someone well only when we understand the motives behind the person’s actions.
“Human action is purposeful behavior, and humans think not merely for the sake of thinking but also in order to act,” as Mr. Nietzsche observed.
It is ultimately thought (or non-thought) that conditions and shapes human action and human deeds, and thoughts, in turn, are conditioned and shaped by words, which are shaped and conditioned by the structure of the human mind.
Likewise are literary characters shaped:
They are shaped, conditioned, and structured by how thoroughly the writer examines and then presents to us, through language, the thoughts which make the characters act in the way they act.
The deeper the author delves into her or his characters’ motives, the deeper and more realistic the characters become, and the deeper we, as real readers, can delve into the characters too: striving to comprehend the hearts and souls and psyches of these vital, breathing characters — these artistic creations — which, at the end of it all, is a very beautiful, a very worthy, a very enriching thing indeed.