Elements of Fiction: Characterization
In fiction, there are two types of stories: literary (character-driven) and escape (plot-driven). In terms of literary merit, character-driven stories are considered to be superior to plot-driven ones. Of course, there is always a place for good escape fiction; after all, where would we be without Star Wars and the Star Trek series? Still, even escape fiction can benefit from a careful consideration of characterization.
Characterization is probably the most important element of a short story. Without well-developed and interesting characters, a story will fall flat, no matter how fantastic the plot. So where do writers find their characters? The people you already know might offer some good ideas for fictional characters.
Cull from your past; don’t be afraid to write about weird Uncle Freddie, your rotten neighbor who chopped down your mother’s pear tree, or a favorite teacher who recognized your budding talents as a writer; just be sure to change their names to avoid being sued!
Put your heart on the page, force your readers to care about what happens to your protagonist and other characters. If you don’t care, why should I?
As a reader, I want to feel the emotions your characters are experiencing; I want to cry, laugh, get angry, etc., when your characters feel those emotions.
Consider the different types of characters that writers develop:
Three-dimensional (Rounded or Full) Characters
A main character, like a real person, should be a three-dimensional character, one who struggles mightily with issues having to do with good and evil. Real people are not either/or creatures; angelic people can behave like demons; devilish people can behave like angels. A three-dimensional person may occasionally act in ways incongruent with his/her basic nature.
For example, depending on circumstances, a nun might shoplift a package of meat from a store, and a hit man might donate money to the Salvation Army.
What might drive these people to act outside their basic natures that would also feel plausible to the reader?
As a result of their experiences within the story, dynamic characters are changed in significant ways, and, therefore, may decide to take a different course in life. This change can either be positive or negative.
For example, the nun who has shoplifted the meat from the store may decide to leave the convent. Perhaps she has shoplifted for altruistic reasons, such as feeding a destitute family during a time of war and famine, but her basic good nature requires her to confess the transgression to her Mother Superior, who tells her she must leave. As she goes out into the world, she realizes that her former rarefied life as a nun is, in itself, a sham life, with its unrealistic emphasis on good versus evil. She is still an inherently good person, but now she realizes that she can no longer judge others without judging herself.
The nun has changed both her course in life and her way of looking at the world.
One-dimensional (Stock or Stereotypical) Characters
On the other hand, a one-dimensional character falls into good or evil camp, with no deviation from his/her prescribed nature. These stereotypical characters, who tend to populate comic books, fantasy novels, and cartoons, are the superheroes who fight evil and the villains who want to rule the world.
Remember Dudley Do-Right (hero of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Snidely Whiplash (villain extraordinaire) from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons?
These characters would never deviate from their basic good and evil natures. Snidely Whiplash will always tie the virginal maiden to the railroad tracks, and Dudley Do-Right will always be in hot pursuit of the villain – after he rescues the maiden, of course.
Professional fiction writers try to avoid these stock and stereotypical characters, even in escape fiction, and concentrate on developing interesting characters who inhabit their stories with their complicated personalities and conflicts.
Static characters remain the same, no matter what they have experienced. Even if they experience an epiphany, their new realization does not result in any significant changes.
For example, the hit man who has donated $1,000 to the Salvation Army may have done so just to make a good impression on his parole officer. He may not feel any real empathy toward the poor people he has helped. In fact, if someone gave him $500 to knock off the local Captain of the Salvation Army, he would do so.
Thus, in this case, the hit man, by the end of the story, has not experienced any real change, either in the way he continues to live his life or the way he thinks.
Types of characters and their place in the story:
The protagonist is the primary character, the person who should evolve or change as a result of the events taking place in the story. In the traditional story, the protagonist experiences an epiphany, a realization that results in a turning point in the protagonist’s life.
The antagonist, a person (usually), animal, object, place, or even an internal struggle, acts as an opposing force (thorn in his/her side, so to speak) to the protagonist. The antagonist is not necessarily the protagonist’s enemy. In fact, a story tends to be more interesting and in depth when the antagonist is a beloved parent, spouse, child, friend, pet, etc.; such an inherently complicated relationship between protagonist and antagonist can add spice to the overall story conflict.
Secondary and Minor Characters
Secondary and minor characters are often necessary to act as messengers (remember Rosencrantz and Gildenstern from Hamlet?) and service people who help move the plot along. For example, in the story about the thieving nun, a minor character might be the police officer who has arrested her. However, beginning writers tend to overuse these characters.
In short, if the character doesn’t function in the story, then he/she/they should be minimized or deleted.
If you are having difficulty developing your characters you can use Elements ofFiction: Building a Character (Character List)
More Elements of Fiction: