One of the first things that will hinder a work of fiction is poor characterization. A good rule of thumb is that before we sit down to write, we should have a firm grasp on the concept of characterization and the role it plays in the overall effect of good storytelling. Unfortunately, passion and inspiration generally beat good form and doctrine to the punch. We plunge into what we think is a brilliant plot concept, making the characters a secondary priority, tossing them in and out of the story as convenience requires it. Then we find out too late that as powerful as the plot is, the fictional folks who people our story have cast a long, dark shadows of suckiness that dulls the brilliance.  I used to do this all the time, and it’s something I still struggle against, but I’ve learned some general rules of characterization that I have found to be very handy.

First, there are a couple of different ways to present a character, which determines right away who these people are. One method is called direct presentation and the other is indirect presentation. In direct presentation, the author lays it out for us in either exposition or through the dialogue of other characters. “Bob Longfellow was a tall man,” is much the same as, “Wendy turned to her friend with wide eyes and said, ‘Did you see how tall that guy was?'” Either way, we know Bob Longfellow is a tall drink of water because we’ve just been told that he is. With indirect presentation, the author shows us the characters through their actions. “Jim Jones strained to reach the jar of peaches on the top shelf, cursing whoever had thought that building a shelf that was nearly ten feet high was a good idea. Losing patience with the whole shenanigan, Bob Longfellow strode over to the supply shelf,  swiped the jar from its spot, unscrewed the lid, and handed it to Jim.” Now you know Bob is tall, not because I told you he was, but because if he can easily swipe a jar from a shelf that’s about ten feet high, he couldn’t be a short man. From that same indirect method of presentation, you also get the impression than Bob Longfellow is an impatient man and that Jim Jones is stubborn.

This ties into the whole “Show vs. Tell” concept that no writer can get away from. As a general rule, readers prefer to be shown rather than told about a person or an event. That, however, just like almost everything else in writing, is subjective. Danielle Steele, for example, loves to tell us detail after detail about any given person, place or thing, but we keep reading her because, well… she tells a good story. However, the direct method usually lacks emotional impact because unlike the indirect method, it fails to present the characters as living beings of flesh and blood. Also, by too much telling, we give the impression that we aren’t crediting our readers with the intellectual capacity to connect the dots, and thereby, we are inadvertently insulting their intelligence, which will make us anything but popular among readers.

Aside from how we present our characters, we also need to understand what kinds of characters they are. There are three types of characters that populate a story: static, dynamic, and stock.

We don’t need to know much about “static” characters. They generally possess only a few prominent qualities and are there mostly to move the story along, or give the main characters some kind of conflict or resolution. Static characters are different from stock characters though, because these guys can have more than one dimension, and can play very large roles in the story, much like a “supporting” actor or actress in a movie. The main definition of a static character though, is that they do not change. Static characters are the same people by the end of the story as they were in the beginning.  We don’t get to see how they are changed by the events of the plot.

“Dynamic” characters are just the opposite.  These guys are usually the main characters and we get to see them change. Dynamic characters are multi-dimensional, life-like beings who undergo a distinct change of personality, attitude or character as the story progresses. One of the biggest mistakes writers make, in my opinion, is creating a main character who is entirely static. Sometimes, avoiding this is terribly difficult though. In the case of “Beautiful Monster”, (a manuscript I co-wrote with Kim Williams-Justesen) my main character was bad guy. A very, very bad guy. Bad enough that there was no believable way to give him a life-altering epiphany that would show him the error of his ways. Furthermore, I had no interest in redeeming him. Still, he is a dynamic character, and therefore, he must change. The possibilities of change for dynamic characters is wide open though. It doesn’t matter how they change, only that they do change.

Finally, “stock” characters are basically stereotypical characters an author uses for the sake of quick and easy grasp-ability by the readers. We are all too familiar with the wicked stepmother, the harlot with the heart of gold, the good-looking, dark-haired man on the white horse, the hospitable southern widow, the manic-depressive artistic genius, etc. Stock characters are just static characters with one single role: to bring immediate understanding to the reader by capitalizing on stereotypes.

The rules of characterization are some of the most important rules of writing fiction. Unlike many of the other writing rules, I believe these ones need to be firmly observed and respected. A great plot is a powerful thing, but without the right characterization to execute it, readers are left with a sense of having been cheated, a reaction that no writer I know wants to get.

  1. Kim Justesen says:

    I don’t often find a reason to disagree with you, but I’m afraid this time I have to. To dismiss static characters as only slightly more valuable that stock characters is to miss the point of their characterization. Static characters can also be the protagonists. Let me give you an example – in Tobias Woolf’s short story “Hunters in the Snow” all three of the main characters are static characters, but they are all protagonists in a very compelling story. Likewise, the hunting guide Robert Wilson in Hemingway’s “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is a leading character who does not achieve an epiphany during the story and does not alter his personality or behavior as a result. Pick nearly any good mystery story – Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, etc. – and you’ll note that the protagonist rarely changes during the course of the story. He or she may change over the course of the series, but not within the confines of just one book.

    A static character is every bit as interesting, and every bit as important as a dynamic one, and is sometimes they are incredibly useful to put in a story. And BTW – your character DOES change in Beautiful Monster, though not as a result of an epiphany!

  2. Oh, he definitely does change, just not for the better. LOL As I said, “…he (Sterling) is a dynamic character, and therefore, he must change. The possibilities of change for dynamic characters is wide open though. It doesn’t matter how they change, only that they do change.”
    And yes, static characters can be interesting and they can be protagonists, antagonists and main characters. I’ve never thought of them as being only slightly more valuable than stock characters and didn’t make that statement. As I said, the real definition for them is simply that they do not change; that they are the same people by the end of the story as they were in the beginning. I did say that static characters are basically stock characters but with only one role, meaning a stock character is obviously not dynamic, and unlike a static character, they (stock characters) do not generally have more than one dimension or serve multiple purposes.
    Generally, I tend to become strangely attached to static characters, the ones I write and the ones I read. I enjoy their consistency and find myself wondering about them far more often when it’s over than I do the dynamic characters, probably because with dynamic characters, we get to see the changes. Static characters, for me, hold a bit more mystery.
    Also, I do think that main characters should be dynamic, just my opinion. I realize Sherlock Holmes, Poirot (and even many of Edgar Allan Poe’s main characters) are static, and I’m sure that technically, these were not “mistakes” by the authors. It’s just my opinion that if you’re going to spend a lot of intimate time with a character, you should also get the satisfaction of seeing how their experiences have shaped them as people. Whenever this is lacking, I personally feel a little unfulfilled, though I didn’t mean to suggest that main characters who are static are “no-no’s”, only that they are not my preference.
    And also… did you know that “Grasp-ability” is not a word!? lol. Serious. It gave me a big red “error” underline. I ignored it. 😉
    Thank you for reading Kim, and thank you for all your guidance!

  3. Linda Bennett says:

    Great blog! I do so enjoy reading them.

    • Thanks, Linda! I enjoy having you read them! I hope you are well and I am grateful for your friendship.

      • Linda Bennett says:

        I am doing very good, it’s been six months and no cigarettes. I do appreciate your friendship as well. Have nothing but fabulous days and smile, smile, smile 🙂 😉

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