Writing Characterization: A Step-By-Step Guide To Unleashing Your Inner Fitzgerald

Check out our guide to learn how writing characterization can work to your advantage for creating compelling characters your readers will connect with instantly.

Characterization is the process of providing your readers with the information they need to get to know your characters. Good characterization can help a writer develop complex characters with personality traits and a physical appearance that readers can easily picture. Bold characterization can instantly give us a sense of the character’s nature. For example, Phillip Pullman is a master at characterization.

“Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.”

Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

Whether you’re working on a screenwriting project, a short story, or a novel, flat characters are the enemy of a solid writing process. Indirect characterization and direct characterization give your reader the information they need to understand more about your character’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings.

What is Characterization?

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A single paragraph at the beginning of your story can be an excellent start to helping your reader get to know your main character

Before we dive into understanding the different types of characterization, it’s key that you understand the characterization definition in literature. During the characterization process, you’re explaining and revealing details about your main character (and likely your peripheral characters) to allow your readers to understand their personalities, lives, goals, relationships, feelings, and motivations.

Good characterization happens over time. A single paragraph at the beginning of your story can be an excellent start to helping your reader get to know your main character, but character development takes place over the entire course of your novel. Check out these writing organizational patterns.

Before You Start

Just as it will take your readers time to get to know your character, you’ll also need to take the time to flesh out exactly who they are before you can make them appear natural. Getting to know your characters can start by picturing them in your mind and going through an imaginary interview.

Imagine how your character speaks, how they answer your questions, what they’re wearing, and how your questions make them feel emotional. Providing your readers with information on your character’s backstory can help them understand how your character’s choices align with their past experiences. Some smart questions to ask your characters in your imaginary interview can include the following:

  • Describe a typical day in your life.
  • Who is most important to you?
  • How did you grow up? Would you say your childhood was a positive or negative experience?
  • What’s your favorite book or movie? 
  • Are you happy with where you’re at in life? Why or why not?
  • What’s your relationship like with your parents?
  • What drives you to achieve your goals?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt really happy.
  • Do you feel like you have someone you can count on in your life?
  • Would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist? 
  • What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever experienced?
  • What events in your life have shaped who you are today?

If you find it tough to imagine your character speaking out loud, writing their answers to these questions—as if they were filling out a questionnaire—can be helpful. You can also save this and come back to it later when you’re unsure how your character would handle a situation they encounter in your writing.

As you go through your imaginary interview with your character, you’ll likely come across some ideas that can add to your story and help you begin the character development. Emmy-nominated author Mark Boutros, the author of The Craft of Character, says it best. “It can sound corny to say ‘character leads the story’, but you don’t really have a story until there’s a character with a problem, and they need to do something about it.”

To understand how your character will approach their problem (and their relationships with other characters), you need to know who they are as a person. The more you develop your characters before you begin writing, the less you’ll need to revise as you move through the writing process. You might also be interested in our list of worldbuilding questions for storytellers.

Revealing Your Character’s Personality

As we mentioned, your character’s personality will be revealed over time. Character development needs to be an ongoing process. It isn’t something you can check off as complete when working through the creative writing process.

As you work your way through developing your characters, stop occasionally and consider why they’re making the choices to move the story forward. If your reader is confused by your character’s words or actions, take a step back and consider how to include some character development to help your reader understand your character’s motivation.

Guide to Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization

The easiest way to think of the difference between direct and indirect characterization is to consider what you’re telling your reader versus what you’re showing your reader. Both indirect and direct characterization can have their place in high-level character development. It’s best to use a combination of the two to allow your reader to get a feel for the people you’re creating in your story.

Direct Characterization

Writing characterization
Readers understand what Harry looks like and would be able to differentiate between Harry and Dudley if they saw the two walking down the street based on Rowling’s description

Direct characterization consists of facts about your character that you tell your reader. Physical descriptions typically fall into this category. In this example, the author describes the character in detail, painting a picture in the reader’s mind with each word:

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Immediately upon reading the passage, readers can gather some information about Harry. Readers understand what Harry looks like and would be able to differentiate between Harry and Dudley if they saw the two walking down the street based on Rowling’s description.

Indirect Characterization

In indirect characterization, readers infer character traits, as the author is not making direct statements about the character’s traits. When you flat-out need to tell a reader information about a character, you can do that, but it’s often more compelling to let your reader draw their conclusions about your characters through indirect characterization. The example below shows excellent use of indirect characterization:

“Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his raveling cigarette and then, with callused thumb and forefinger, crushed out the glowing end. He rubbed the butt to a pulp and put it out the window, letting the breeze suck it from his fingers.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Characterization Tips and Tricks

1. Understand Your Character

As you get to know your character, thinking about the qualities you want to emulate can help you develop other characters. The development of adversaries or complimentary characters can bring out qualities in your main character that might otherwise go unnoticed.

2. Balance Implicit and Explicit Characterization Methods

“James Gatz–that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career–when he saw Dan Cody’s yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior. It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a row-boat, pulled out to the TUOLOMEE and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

In the example above, Fitzgerald provides the reader with a ton of information about Gatsby. The writer shows the readers that he chose a different name and went out of his way to help others. This insight is excellent character development and shows the reader a side of the character’s personality that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

3. Give All Characters a Purpose

In life, we’re surrounded by people whose actions are inconsequential—our interactions with real people at the grocery store or someone dropping off a package don’t particularly further the story of our lives. This shouldn’t be the case when working to develop a story.

Every character in your story should serve a purpose. You don’t necessarily need to delve into the point of view of every character you introduce, but you should ensure that each character in your story serves a purpose or means something to the main character.

4. Let Your Characters Learn

Your characters will develop over time, just like people do in real life. If your main character is brave, your reader will want to see them grow to embody that characteristic. Show how they grow over time. This is key to helping your readers view your characters as real people with real lives.

It may mean that you regularly revise your characters’ journeys, but this is normal. As you learn more about your characters and the web of their interactions, you may find that a character turns out to be more sinister than you thought or that your protagonist needs to go through some additional trials before they can finally succeed. Imagining each character’s nuances can help readers see them as individuals rather than as tried-and-true, predictable tropes. Looking for more on this topic? Check out our metaphor examples from literature!

Author

  • Amanda has an M.S.Ed degree from the University of Pennsylvania in School and Mental Health Counseling and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. She has experience writing magazine articles, newspaper articles, SEO-friendly web copy, and blog posts.