Debbie Lee Wesselmann


Tips for Characterization

Characterization is one of the most important elements of fiction.  While literary fiction requires a more complex treatment than does most genre fiction, all writers must people their works with interesting, believable characters. 

1.  Know your character’s past without explaining it to the reader.  Since we are all driven by our personal histories, it makes sense that believable characterization would contain this component.  However, the reader does not need to know everything you, the writer, does. Beginning writers often supply lengthy exposition and details that have no bearing on the scene.  Reveal your character’s past on a “need to know” basis only.

2. Characterization should be a force behind the plot.  Ask yourself:  Why can’t this story happen without this character?  How does this character add to the conflict?  How would the story change with a different set of characters

3. The personality and peculiarities of your characters should emerge through their actions.  The old “Show, don’t tell” advice is particularly useful here.  Instead of explaining motive, emotions, and realizations, let the reader draw his conclusions based on behavior.

4. Don’t use characters as mouthpieces.  A character should never exist solely to convey information.

5.  Find the contradictions within a character.   Maybe a detective who is precise with his investigations lives in chaos at home.  Or a middle-aged woman listens to hip hop music.  Don’t create contradictions for the sake of them, however; they need to reveal something deeper about the character that is relevant to your story.

6. Place your characters in situations that challenge their traits.  For example, what happens to a borderline obsessive-compulsive person when he must forgo his rituals?  What happens to a psychologist who must question her own sanity?

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Lee Wesselmann