CONFESSION: For me, characters make the magic in a story. If I can care about them, fall in love with them, cry or laugh with them, get angry at them or with them, then I’m sold. But if I never make that emotional connection with a main character, the book just becomes…forgettable.
Different characters grab different people for all sorts of unique reasons. That’s the fun thing about reading and writing. I think a lot of YA authors out there today get this characterization thing right. But I also feel like the pressure to create stories with more fast action and less reflection within characters sometimes comes at a cost… How well do we get to know and love these characters? And if we’re not rooting for them, do we really care what happens in the end? The story loses appeal when we lose the characterization. Don’t get me wrong. I like action. I like adventure. But I like to throw a book across the freaking room when the action and adventure stress me out so much that I am worried for that character. There have been many books brutally thrown across my room for a number of reasons… more recent ones include Catching Fire (Peeeeeeeta…Noooo…*sob, sob*), Breaking Dawn (Really, Jacob?! You imprinted on Bella’s baby?! What the WHAT!), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (NO. Not HEDWIG. I will hunt down EVERY LAST DEATH EATER if it’s the LAST thing I do.) Point being, if your book gets thrown across my room, you touched something inside me that is so volatile, so delightfully uncomfortable that I can’t read it, nor can I look away from it. It’s that part of me that genuinely LOVES those characters.
So here are my tips to my young (or beginner) writers out there for good characterization. (I could go all night on this, but these are my starting points. Ha.) This is totally based on my own writing and what I personally love about reading – it’s not formulaic, because PEOPLE are not products of formulas. Why should we make characters that way?
1. Keep your characters consistent! If she is a hothead, keep her that way through the whole story. She can still grow as a character, but she shouldn’t suddenly become all patient and kind and mushy over things. Keep her snarky. Keep her volatile – even as she learns to control it. If he’s rough, tough, and mysterious, don’t let him suddenly give all his secrets away and totally change his personality just for that One Girl He Loves. He should still struggle to change… I don’t know about yall, but even after 8 and a 1/2 years of marriage, my husband and I will still default to the same struggles and personality conflicts if given the right circumstances. Responses to things can change, but personalities do not.
2. Give your characters individual traits that are unique to them. Sometimes it’s the small, quirky things that make a character so believable. I keep a list for Whitnee, Morgan, and Caleb’s little quirks – and I make sure they stay consistent through the series. Whitnee paces, Morgan smacks her gum, Caleb runs his hands through his hair. Whitnee has a fish phobia, Morgan always needs the bathroom, Caleb has a scar over his right eyebrow from a childhood run from punishment – which symbolically says that even though he acts like a Boy Scout, he has a naughty side. (Kissing Claire on the cliff while working at camp? Are you kidding me?) Whitnee is the Drama Queen, Morgan is the Peacemaker, Caleb is the Thinker. Decide the instincts that you want your characters to have and then go with that throughout your story. EVERY time something is happening in my story, I think of the individual traits of my three main characters and decide exactly how they would react to the event based on their histories, their personalities, and their motives. Which brings me to…
3. Write believable dialogue! Please make your characters talk like real people. I’ve read some YA books lately that made me think, “Wow. When was the last time this person TALKED to a teenager?” As someone who primarily talks to teens every day of my life, this especially irks me. I can tell the authors who really don’t engage in teenage conversations very much and are just writing off of their own teenage recollections. A LOT has changed in the last twenty years, folks. Not that writing from experience is a bad thing… we all do that to a certain degree whether we like it or not. In fact, the best writing is usually when you WRITE what you KNOW. But dialogue is tricky. Spend some time just listening to the ebb and flow of other people’s conversation. When you need to write adult characters, listen to your parents talk to each other or how your teachers interact with one another or with you. If you’re an adult writing teen characters, go to the movie theater and just listen in on how teens are engaging one another. Do NOT rely on stereotypes or even what TV shows and movies are displaying about teenagers. It’s just not always accurate to real life. (I speak the truth, yall.) And remember… Dialogue should NOT be used to repeat what has already been narrated. Dialogue should offer insight to characterization or bring out new information. Don’t bore your reader with repetition. (Speaking from experience here… I’ve had to learn too.)
4. Remember that characters are real people too! Well, sort of. If they are mimicking human life, then they should act like humans. I always tell my students that characterization should be about more than just physical traits and personality. I only get one side of my students when they walk in my room once a day. Based on that, I could tell you what they wore, how they acted around others that day…I could make inferences about their mood or tell you if they’re introverted or extroverted. But I don’t get to truly know them until I spend time with them outside of that classroom. I don’t see what happens when they go to their locker, how they respond when someone comes up to them with a juicy tidbit of gossip, what they feel when a kid makes a snide remark to them about how they look that day, how many times they get yelled at or in trouble for the SAME THING every class period. I don’t follow them on the bus home and see how they act around their families or what they do for fun in their spare time. I don’t know the thoughts that run through their head when they’re away from me… But an author does. An author should see the whole scope. And they should build their characterization to show what makes that character happy, mad, sad, scared… what motivates them to get up every morning, what events in their past either make them stronger or tear them to shreds. If each of us is more than just what people see on the outside, then our characters must be more than just a stereotype. They must go deeper. They must reveal weakness AND strength. They must fail and they must conquer. They must be more than just a name on a page.