Characterization – A Little More To It

I spend a lot of time reading.

A lot.

It’s a big part of my writing strategy. All of the authors that I like to read agree – reading is a significant part of the writing experience.  It makes sense – why work on the process when you don’t experience the product (sidenote: hear that politicians? 🙂 )


My primary reading is coming from the ‘Free’ selection in the Kindle Store. It’s actually one of the nicer ways for me to get ahold of new material without having to worry about late fines of over $10 at the library. From what I can tell, there are two kinds of ‘free’ books in the Kindle store.

1) A ‘sample’ book from an established author to draw in new audiences.

2) A ‘sample’ book from a new author to…do the same thing.

The interesting thing is I can tell nine times out of ten which books are from established authors and which ones are from new ones. The most telling sign of the new authors is the lack of characterization. Which is odd, considering your characters are what are selling the book.

For instance, I just finished a thriller novel (review coming on Tuesday) and it was told from the perspective of two of the main characters. One was a police officer who worked in the field and one was an M15 agent who worked in the offices (under normal circumstances).

It was an interesting setup: bombs were placed around London and were going to explode in two weeks. M15 had gotten ahold of e-mail communications between the terrorist group responsible and their co-ordinator in London. They needed to infliltrate the guy’s house and obtain the cipher to the coded e-mails. They asked the woman to do it since she was an unknown on their team. Meanwhile, the police detective has a bizarre string of murders to solve and place which also contain a code. He needs the woman because she’s a code-cracker and they want to stop the serial killer. The plot was interesting and the sequence was believable enough that I didn’t immediatly delete it from my Kindle library.

The problem, though, came in when I began to read the story. Excepting the woman, there was almost no characterization to the cast. All three men – the Terrorist, the M15 boss, and the Street Cop – that were involved in the story could have swapped places with each other if they traded wigs.  It got difficult to know which man the woman was talking about as she moped about the feelings all three had (and her own problem in falling in love with a terrorist) because there was nothing to differentiate them except hair color and profession. They all took her to the same restaurant, they were all defensive of her when she was threatened, they were all kind when she was worried. They were cardboard copies of each other with different jobs.

And that’s a problem.  If I can’t tell your three main men apart from each other without their job or eye color, then it’s a problem. It could be myself as the reader who is the problem – I’ll admit. But, more likely, it’s some bad writing. It’s easy to focus on one or two characters as a writer and assume that yoru reader is seeing everything you see. It’s really easy. It’s also a bad idea. Think about it: What characters do we remember?

As a for instance: the Harry Potter series. Particularly, the Weasley family.  Immediatly Rowling sets the Weasley’s apart from other wizards (and people in general). For one thing, they ALL have red hair. And none of the pansy red -we’re talking major gingerage here. The second thing we find out is that they have a TON of kids. And each of those kids is given something unique that differentiates them: Charlie works with Dragons, Bill is charming and socially adept (enough to marry Fleur at least. Of all of the Weasley’s, Bill is the one we see the least of),  Percy is a prick, The Twins Fred and George are rebels and comedic, Ron is underperforming comparativly, and Ginny who is…well, she’s the Love Interest so… 🙂 There’s also Arthur – a person who finds Muggles fascinating and protects them even as he tinkers with their ‘toys’ and his long suffering wife Molly who is the Momma bear of modern fiction who takes a shining to Harry right from the get go. Rowling does the opposite of the above writer – if I had a room full of Weasleys and swapped their hats (ages, genders, etc) I’d still be able to tell who is who based on their actions. If Percy were in Fred’s body, we’d know it was him because he’d be nagging about the rules and giving everyone a hard time about it. If I found one tearing apart my toaster to look at its insides, I’d know it was Arthur even if he did look like his daughter. Those personality quirks and images make the characters different, interesting, and more memorable.

Now, I have to do that with my charactrs.

I am working on Threads of Destiny pretty darn consistantly and trying to make it better as I go and my wife – a great pre-reader – pointed out after the last chapter (a shopping trip of all things0  “Now it’s starting to get interesting. The characters are starting to have some personality”

(YAY! It only took me….88 pages….)

So, I’ve gone back to examine things and try and make some of their personality traits come out a little more strongly.  Greg, of course, is not a difficult one to nail down, but I find that I am having trouble working out Alista.Ironically, she’s the chracter I played in the game the story is based on.

I know who she is and how she reacts, but establishing that on the page is proving more difficult. Unless she’s presented with a conflict of interest, she doesn’t have much to go on. She argues and she defends herself and Vicor. BUt there has to be something more to it, or else it’s really not a lot.

I’m going back over my posts at to re-read her words and find some more to her. I’ll let you all know if I find anything.

So, writers, followers (we’re a growing crowd!) What tool do you find to be the most useful in establishing characterization? (My answer will be my Sunday Blog post.)


One thought on “Characterization – A Little More To It

  1. I find the general thing in making interesting “grey area” characters is to find a strength and weakness and then discover (either through writing or brainstorming) how they came to have those traits, it was a good process for developing character backstories in D&D and it works pretty well in character writing as well.
    An interesting tool in character progression is, once you have the general plot lined out, to think of how your character begins, mind set, maturity wise, and world-view then how that will have changed throughout the plot, and you can plot out sort of revelatory moments to happen over the story.

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