Recently, I attended a conference and spent some time with a publisher/editor. She suggested that I repeat the presentation on characterization that I gave the year before at this same conference. She receives lots of manuscripts from authors who’d like to be published. One thing she says that she finds wrong with too many of the submissions, is lack of good characterization.
Because I’ve judged many contests, taught writing classes and belong to a critique group, I’ve seen this same problem all too often.
First, it’s important that each character has a name that suits him or her, and is right for the time period. The author should know more about each one than height, weight, hair and eye color. When writing about the character, reminders about the person’s looks should be given from time to time. That can be done instead of a dialogue tag sometimes. For instance: Molly twisted a long, red curl between her fingers before she answered. Then the dialogue would follow.
The same sort of thing can be done with action, such as: Mrs. Bettancort plopped her ample derriere down on the couch, making it sag in the middle and the pillows popping upward.
It’s not necessary to get carried away, but adding these little bits and pieces about your characters will make them seem real to the reader, not just a name on the page.
There has to be a reason for each character to be in the novel. Whether or not they are a main character or someone who just pops in for a moment, he or she must have a purpose to further the plot along. Important characters should have a history. Bits and pieces of that history may be revealed throughout the story–or not. But the author needs to know what made the character the person he or she is at this point in life.
When characters are talking to one another, they need to be someplace. Too often a new writer will forget to let the reader know where the conversation is taking place. No one character should monopolize the conversation, unless this is something the author is doing on purpose to let us know that this is a flaw this person has. Listen and watch when people are talking together, they interrupt each other, the move about, their facial expressions change. All these things can be used to reveal something about the character just as much as the dialogue.
In order to make characters as interesting as possible, the hero and heroine should have some flaws and the villain some good qualities. Besides having problems to solve, there should be some change come over the protagonist by the end of the book.
For me, the easiest way to know what is happening to my heroine, is to crawl inside her, see through her eyes, feel what she feels emotionally and by touch, smell what she’s smelling and experiencing what she’s experiencing. That way, I can write a credible scene.
Marilyn Meredith, author of Calling the Dead. Coming soon, Judgment Fire.