A character could say. “Move over Storky, You are blocking the sun light!” Thus, revealing John is tall. John could step out of a limousine, dressed in a custom fit designer suit, wearing 1000 dollar fancy tooled, cowboy boots to indicate to the reader, John’s wealthy station in life. The critics and writing teachers usually rate this style of creative writing higher on a scale of one to ten than just narrative. Although, straight narrative has her uses in creative writing too when applied at the proper time and in the proper dosage. There are no perfect recipes for any aspect of creative writing. Trial and error, re-reading and re-writing generally creates the best work. Authors who are expert in other literary categories, such as; creating engaging plots, dramatic, riveting dialogs, picturesque settings or relevant, emotional themes, will be forgiven by readers, if they lack the best skills of characterization since their work can be read and cherished for it’s overwhelming other values and vice versa.
It is easiest to approach learning fluid characterization by first writing everything out you wish your reader to know about each character narrative style so you can continue penning the story until your first draft is complete then go back and replace the boring, long winded narrative. You can tweak some narrative by changing it slightly into dialog the other characters speak rather than leaving it as something the author’s voice announces. Other traits can be shown through the action in the story. Example: John was tall and rich. The waitresses called him nicknames like Storky and Filet Mignon but not to his face. – could be rewritten as – “Don’t look now.” Sara pointed out the window indicating a big tall sharp dressed man stooping so not to bang his head as he climbed out of a long limousine. “Here comes a tall glass of Filet Mignon.” Notice how small bits of narrative are interspersed with descriptive dialog and character revealing action.
“Oh that’s just John Packard.” Mildred informed. “He’s handsome and harmless Honey. We all call him Storky. He owns half this town.” Sara combed her fingers through her blond bangs. “Flirt if you must but beware his third wife is very territorial and protective of her Sugar Daddy.” Can you see how different themes are developed and roads are plowed open for the plot to move in if the author chooses to pursue them.
Every time you introduce a new character into your story you open up many doors and new possible directions your tale can go. These directions or possible story development opportunities are limited when you simply state; John was tall, very rich, strong and handsome for a middle aged man. For this reason, the masters of characterization rarely point out specific one dimensional fact such as the physical traits of their characters using their narrator’s voice. The great authors know that even if they never intend to further develop some story line options, having extra story line possibilities make it more enjoyable for their readers who anxiously reads on, hungry and curious to find out what will happen next. Symbolism is often used to steer the reader in the right direction but room is left for each reader to engage their own imaginations.
In order to discuss this technique, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a homicide detective who is trying to piece together a sketch of a murder victim’s life. Picture yourself in the victim’s apartment. Everything in the apartment gives you new insight into who the victim was. The type of furnishings, scream at you the victim’s personality. The art work the Vic chose to display on his walls and shelves reveal volumes about his character. The types of clothing you discover in the closet, the jewelry the victim owned, even the style of shoes add to the picture of who lived here. The books on their bookshelves tell you their interests. Their music in their music collection makes a statement of their beliefs and lifestyle. Is the apartment messy or very organized? Is there sports memorabilia all over the apartment? What is the overall tone you feel when you first stepped into the apartment? Do you feel welcomed? Is it bright and cheery or drab, gloomy and depressing? What neighborhood did the person choose to live in? Can you see how finding out information that describes a character through inference and symbolism can tell a reader a lot more than static narrative like; John was tall, handsome and rich?
The key is not to tell your reader what to think about a character. Instead, allow your reader to decide what it is your character is trying to tell the world by pinning her long silky, shiny bleached blond hair up on top of her head in a tight bun. What do her thigh high, leather boots really signify; a sexual preference, a cry for attention, insecurity and perhaps vulnerability based on over compensation or something else? A character’s identity is displayed by the choices he or she makes. Are they wearing a hat that is functional; blocks the sun, keeps their ears warm, protects them from rain? Or, are they wearing a hat that is a fashion statement or displays their loyalty towards a product, social group or sports team?
New writers need to be warned away from using tired clichés when displaying characteristics. Over used generalities are boring and come off as insulting to your readers. Dig deeper, your characters and readers deserve more.
Think about the image portrayed by a smartly dressed man, driving a Harley Davidson motor cycle, pulling into a reserved for president parking spot. The young man climbs off the shiny hog then leans over to reach into the side car to retrieve his briefcase. He walks towards the revolving glass door, the fingers of his right hand picking at his helmets chin strap. Isn’t that scene more intriguing than the usual tattoo covered biker wearing mirror shades, ripped jeans and dangling chains that can be quickly converted into weapons pulling off a rural road onto a gravel parking lot of a rundown road side bar then parking next to the usual row of other overly customized motorcycles. Are you more intrigued by the young business exec that drives his Harley to work or the Hells Angels type of motor cycle gang character? Who do you want to learn more about?
Remember there are different levels a creative writer can take characterization to. The author can simply state ‘John was strong’. The author could up his game by having a character in the story describe John:
Sheila puckered her lips then whistled to get the other waitresses attention. “Wow girls! Look at the size of the biceps on that man.”
“And he has a six pack too!” Gina the short brunette added, pointing out the window at the bare chested, deeply tanned, young man pulling a white t-shirt on over his head of short, chestnut hair.
“He’s a young Adonis for sure!” Cherie the older blond receptionist agreed as she quickly pulled her lipstick out of her pocket book then began applying a fresh coat of glossy, cherry apple red.
Taking characterization to an even higher more sophisticated level is a little, more tricky. It involves going deeper than just addressing the person’s physical description. For instance, what else does John’s having a great muscular physique tell us about the man himself? We can deduce he’s obviously health conscientious. This can be confirmed when he enters the diner then orders a fruit cup and a large orange juice while his slovenly, unshaved, over weight buddy orders eggs over easy, bacon crisp, rye toast and a tomato juice which he fully intends to spike with vodka from the flask he’s got hidden underneath his shirt. We can obviously tell that John into physical fitness. We can further show how serious he is about taking care of his body by having one of the waitresses over hear him scold his out of shape breakfast companion about his unhealthy eating habits. We can also infer that John is probably very driven since he has what it takes to first get so physically fit and then maintain his physique. This could be further confirmed and developed by dialog during which his buddy scolds him for being such a workaholic, warning John that if he doesn’t learn how to lighten up and enjoy life, he’ll probably have a heart attack despite all the workouts he does.
So you see, now we have taken a trait of John’s that started out as ‘john was strong’ and developed it much further. We see how just that one physical trait ‘strong’ can lead us into possible themes addressing healthy eating, over working, possible variations of the theme of ‘beauty is only skin deep’. We now have set up the option to pursue themes like physical strength verses mental strength. Many plots can also be developed now; One of the waitresses falls for the handsome work driven Adonis. She makes it her mission to save him from himself. Another waitress may start a romance with his slovenly Pal. By developing the sole characteristic of John being ‘strong’, we opened the doors for many smooth transitions of the story, giving us many options with which to move the tale forward. Just think about all the new possibilities for story plot development and themes that will be open for us to explore once we further expose who this strong, driven, health obsessed John person really is; what his inner thoughts are, what he dreams about, fears, what motivates him, excites him. Maybe he’s in such great shape because he just got out of prison where all he did for five years is lift weights in the yard and plot his revenge against his enemies who betrayed him. Characterization really can be a powerful asset when in the hands of a knowledgeable, skilled creative writer.