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Elements of Fiction: Character

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In the previous post, I wrote about setting. In this post, I will discuss character and characterization.

Characters and Characterization

Character is an important element of fiction. Without a central character, there is no story. The goal of the fiction writer is to create characters that are likeable and memorable. Charles Dickson’s is well-known for his memorable characters. He created David Copperfield, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Oliver Twist. Most memorable characters are heroes. Sometimes, though, the writer makes the anti-hero the central character of the story.

But a good story needs more than memorable characters. A good story includes an inciting incident that impacts the main character. It includes a main character who has a goal or desire. It includes a main character who is confronted with some type of conflict. This conflict might exist within the mind of the character or be external. Often, the antagonist is the opposing force in the story. A good story includes a main character who is faced with challenges and obstacles.

A successful fiction writer knows how to develop characters by using description, dialogue, action, and more.

This article discusses the following aspects of character:

  • Types of characters
  • Characterization
  • The character profile
  • Dialogue

Types of Characters

There are several ways in which the fiction writer and reader of fiction can define characters in a story.

Protagonist and Antagonist. A story needs a central character, or hero, or protagonist. Often this main character must oppose a villain or antagonist. Both are major characters in the story. The fiction writer must spend a great deal of time developing these types of characters by using the techniques of characters description, action by the character, and dialogue.

Major and Minor Characters. Stories include major characters, such as the protagonist and antagonist. Stories often include minor characters. These are characters who the fiction writer defines by a single idea or quality. These types of characters are necessary for the story, but they are not important. These are secondary characters to the story.

Flat and Round Characters. A character can also be identified in terms of flat or round characters. A flat character is a minor character in the story. This type of character doesn’t change as the story progresses.

Round characters, on the other hand, must deal with conflict in the story and are change by it. The writer develops these types of characters by using character descriptions and dialogue. Round characters are all the major characters of the story, including the hero and villain.

Static and Dynamic Characters. Another way of defining a character is in terms of “static character” or “dynamic character.” A static character is a minor character in the story and plays a supporting role to the main character. Static characters don’t change as the story progresses. The fiction writer spends little time developing static characters.

In contrast, a dynamic character is a round character. This type of character grows and develops as the story advances. The fiction writer spends a great deal of time developing these types of characters. They are believable and can be memorable.

Characterization

What is characterization? It is the means by which the fiction writer presents and reveals a character in the story to the reader. Although the techniques of characterization are complex, writers typically reveal characters through the following methods:

  • Action. How the character acts or behaves throughout the story.
  • Appearance. What types of clothes the character wears. His/her hygiene.
  • Dialogue. What the character says and how the character says it.
  • Thoughts and Feel. By what the character thinks and feels.
  • Relationships. The types of personal relationships, such as friends and acquaintances the character has.

 

Characterization is the process by which the fiction writer reveals a character’s personality to the reader. This process is very similar to the process real people go through when they encounter new situations or person. People form an initial opinion about a situation based upon what they see and hear. The fiction writer can reveal a character in the following ways:

  1. By telling the reader directly what the character is like (not a very subtle approach and not used often by writers);
  2. By describing how the character looks and dresses (What type of clothing does the character wear?
  3. By letting the reader hear how the character speaks (Does the character speak with a dialect? Is the character loud or soft-spoken?);
  4. By revealing the character’s private thoughts and feelings (What does the character think about other people? About himself?);
  5. By revealing the character’s effect on other people (Do people want to associate with the character? Do people do whatever the character asks?)
  6. By showing the character’s actions (Does the character treat people who respect and courtesy? Does the character make good decisions or poor ones?).

The Character Profile/Character Sketch

Author Nancy Lamb wrote in “The Art and Craft of storytelling” that the challenge of the writer is to create characters that live and breathe on the page. To achieve this, the writer must create characters that are:

  • Authentic.
  • Grab the attention of the reader.
  • Believable.
  • Appealing to the reader.

One method of developing a character is by using a character profile.

Before constructing the story, the fiction writer ought to have a good idea of what sorts of characters he/she will include in your story, such as the protagonist and villain. To help you write about characters. You can create a character sketch or profile for each character. For each character sketch, include the following:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Name
  • Education
  • Job
  • Interests
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Important traits
  • Clothes
  • Body language
  • Name and moniker

The aspiring writer can ask the following questions to develop a character sketch:

  1. Where is the character from?
  2. What is the character’s social milieu or environment?
  3. How old is the character?
  4. What is the name of the character?
  5. What does the character look like?
  6. What does the character do for a living?
  7. How does the character deal with conflict and change?
  8. What is the character’s goal or motivation in the scene or story?

Dialogue

Much of what a reader learns about a character comes from what the character says and how the character says it. Keeping points in mind, the aspiring writer can use dialogue for the following purposes:

  1. To advance the plot. (Sam screamed, “I am going to kill you.”)
  2. To reveal and express character emotions and traits. (The mother said, “You are lazy.”)
  3. To allow characters to confront one another. (The boyfriend replied, “I am leaving you for my secretary.”)
  4. To crystallize situations and relations. (“I love you.”)
  5. To comment on the setting. (“I loathe this country.”)
  6. To introduce a motif, symbol, or allusion. (“You look like the Mona Lisa.”)
  7. To transition to a new scene or narrative summary. (“I will call you tomorrow.”)

For more information on how to use dialogue, read The Passion for Narrative.

How to Create Memorable Characters

There is no single method by which the fiction writer goes about creating memorable characters. Some get their ideas from real people. Others read about a character in the news. Some use themselves as a basis of a character sketch.

To create memorable characters, the aspiring writer can follow these suggestions:

  1. Early in the story, define the main goal or purpose of the protagonist.
  2. Create conflict throughout the story.
  3. Create a struggle that the character must endure and overcome.
  4. Create characters that are interesting and appealing to the reader.
  5. Create convincing motivations for your characters.
  6. Craft a story that the reader can relate to.
  7. Create multi-dimensional characters.
  8. Create characters that are able to defend themselves and overcome their antagonists or enemies.
  9. The hero must be the instrument of his own salvation.

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn about the elements of fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins

Next, I will discuss the theme of a short story or novel.

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2 Comments

  1. Chad Russell says:

    Thank you for this great write-up!

    I am attempting (at the divorced age of 40) ro write my first fantasy novel. While I feel as if I am writing in an effort to learn how to write (because I am at such an amateur point), I have a plethora of issues, some of which are concerning me more than others.

    One of my main issues, at the moment, is the narrative style that is a norm in fiction writing (if there is an actual norm).

    1. I was told never to use contractions between words when writing in narrative form:

    He could not understand how he had lost the race.
    Not:

    He couldn’t understand how he had lost the race.

    2. Secondly, Just how much narrative is safe when describing a main character/protaganist/antagonist/etc.?

    I have read some Geroge R.R. Martin (Song of Ice and Fire Saga), and noted he will go more so into dialogue to explain characters (pages of conversation for example), whereas I’ll note that other authors will go into shorter dialogues, and instead engage in lengthy backgrounds on a character’s history or past experiences, such as Edward Rutherfurd in, “The Dublin Saga.”

    I suppose a good writer can do one or the either, or both. As an amateur writer such as myself, however, I would like
    to know if there is a rule of thumb that dictates how much narration (or even dialogue for that matter) is acceptable when trying to “flesh” out a main character.

    Thank you for your time,

    vazzruss@yahoo.com
    Chad Russell

  2. Chad Russell says:

    Bah – I just noticed a typo or two, my apologies!

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