Characterization Series: Final Thoughts

1338212_business_manAs I wrap up my 3 part series on characterization issues–specifically, character traits I don’t like as a reader in characters I’m supposed to like–some thoughts have occurred to me looking at the series as a whole I’d like to consider here. Some final thoughts on characterization:

  1. FOR THE MOST PART, EFFECTIVE CHARACTER TRAITS ARE ALL ABOUT BALANCE. Of course, there can be viable exceptions to this rule: a character who struggles with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example. But generally, characters who are very much extreme in the degree to which they display their personalities irk me. If this is a character I’m supposed to like, then problems arise. One way to avoid being “extreme” this way–for me at least–is to have characters react in a proportionate manner to the situation they’re facing. A character feeling sorry for herself after her husband dies and she’s not sure how she’ll provide for her young child is an entirely different thing than, say, Scarlett O’Hara going into hysterics because Ashley Wilkes is not interested in her and has decided to marry Melanie Hamilton. The first character is simply being human. Scarlett is being a selfish, spoiled brat, only wanting something she cannot have because she cannot have it. A character who is fearful and manifests that while caught in the middle of civil war is different from a character afraid to tell the woman he loves that he’s in love with her.
  2. THIS RULE OF BALANCE NEED NOT APPLY IF IT’S NOT IMPORTANT FOR YOUR READERS TO RELATE TO OR LIKE YOUR CHARACTER. If we’re talking about your villain here, or a character like Scarlett, who is openly and unabashedly unlikeable, things are different. One of the major reasons Scarlett O’Hara works for me as a character is because throughout the course of “Gone with the Wind,” I never got the impression that Margaret Mitchell wanted me to like her. Respect her on some level, sure, and Scarlett’s courage and pluck give me good reason to say I can respect her as a character and that I care to some degree what happens to her. But I definitely have never liked Scarlett. I don’t have to. The story the author is telling–and the manner in which she tells it–does not demand that of me to enjoy it.
  3. YOUR HERO DOESN’T HAVE TO BE AN ANGEL FOR ME TO LIKE HIM OR HER. This was a major mistake I made in my first, unpublished novel. The brave, honorable knight; the plucky, confident, intelligent princess; the self-sacrificing peasant girl who never thinks of herself: these characters are stale and cliché–partly on purpose, but still, stale–and they’re nothing at all like actual people. When I began to write my Herezoth novels, I learned from my mistakes. I remembered that a character needn’t be perfect for me to like him or her; in fact, I could relate a lot more to characters like me, who shared my flaws, my fears, and my weaknesses.
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5 responses to “Characterization Series: Final Thoughts

  1. Good morning, Victoria! 🙂 The problem I am having with my protagonist is that I want to show a progression of her. I want to portray her as not too likable at first, and as she grows through her interaction with a major character, she becomes a heroine. I know that I will have to do that with care because if she is too unlikable in the beginning, that could be a fatal error. Any tips on how to accomplish this? 🙂

    • I would suggest to find some ways even at the beginning to show she has potential: twinges of conscience, a good deed or other…. make sure your reader has some reason not to completely give up on her. I’m not sure that’s great advice, and I’m not sure how exactly you could do that in a way that’s true to the character, but it’s what I would try to do in that situation.

  2. In my novel I actually want my readers to like or feel somewhat sympathetic to the villain yet still cheer hard for the hero. I want to have that conflict, but I’m not exactly sure how to find the right balance yet because I don’t want my villain to outshine my MC even though this villain has a lot less appearances in the book. Thanks for your helpful posts!

    • you’re so welcome!!! that aspect of understanding, in some sense, the villain, was important to me too. I treaded a line (or tried to) by giving my villains traits that I associate with myself to help me relate to them, both good things and things I’m not so proud of. Villains are HARD to write, but you nailed what the balancing act requires in your comment. Thanks for writing!

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