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 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 these created characters, discussing the motives of the characters as if these fictional creations were real people.
It has been said that one of the truest tests of a timeless story or novel or play is when we can discuss the characters as though they were real people — we can plumb their psyches and talk about what moves and motivates these fictional characters, just as we would with real and living humans — and I think that this test is true: it is one of the best tests of 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 well-developed and excellent — felt this way, and it all makes perfect sense….”
“Even though Rocky Balboa ultimately loses the fight, the movie Rocky gives the audience such an overwhelming feeling of triumph at the end because the character of Rocky Balboa is so realistic and likable, and he has so much heart and so much strength of will, and he deeply admires his opponent Apollo Creed— so much so that he’s honored to even be in the ring with Apollo.”
“I found Michael Corleone’s behavior in Godfather 3 completely inconsistent and out-of-character 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 facets, or with only one or two 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 and 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.
But 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 unified 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 and data offered about her or him — the concreted actions and the motives behind them — haven’t been adequately explained or integrated into a unified whole. Vincent Vega, John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction, is, I think, an example of one such: his hatred of Butch (Bruce Willis), which becomes a semi significant part of the plot, is left unexplored, unexamined, unexplained. So that when, toward the end of the movie, Vincent is suddenly gunned down by Butch, it feels out-of-left-field — shocking, perhaps, but ultimately abrupt and arbitrary-seeming, in my opinion, since we’ve never learned what motivates or drives that conflict coming completely (at first) from Vincent.
In literature, a character can only be expressed by means of what the writer writes down. Yet behind every specific act of the character, 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 say to themselves, in effect. “Let us see what moves this character.”
This sort of reader is continually making evaluations, usually at the subconscious or even unconscious level, thinking, in essence, 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.
The following is an example of how a brief dialogue can very effectively develop two characters:
“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 both 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, and yet stylized. The words Ray Bradbury assigned to them — i.e. how 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 only for the sake of thinking but also in order to act,” as Mr. Nietzsche well 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 developed 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 them too: striving to comprehend the heart and soul and psyche of these living, breathing characters — these artistic creations — and this, at the end of it all, is a very beautiful, a very worthy and enriching thing indeed.
I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.