Writing Fiction Using Characterization Tricks: Killer, Saint, Idiot?

When you’re writing fiction, your characters are everything. “Plot” is what your characters do. Since characterization is so vital, let’s look at simple ways to get characters clear in your own mind… So you can make them real to readers.

I’ve been rereading Anthony Trollope, just for his characters.

He’s masterful at characterization. Not only do you believe in his characters, but you cheer them on. Occasionally you want to give them a swift kick where it will do the most good.

Trollope knew the importance of emotion. You always FEEL his characters: you adore them, despise them, they disgust you—whatever. You REACT to his characters. I commend Trollope to you. Skim if you need to, he can be wordy, but pay attention to his characters.

BTW, all his books are free on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. Start with The Eustace Diamonds, or Dr Thorne.

Before you go overboard on characters, remember the story question.

Writing fiction: the story question is everything to your characters

Many a new novelist has happily put the cart before the horse, so to speak. The cart being an intricate plot with exciting characters (or so you hoped — how could a private eye with a background in military intelligence be so boring)?

You forgot the horse: the story question.

The point of a novel is often referred to as the “story question”, or “dramatic question.” Although the story question might not be stated overtly, it must exist for your novel to be satisfying to readers.

In many genres, the genre itself offers insight to the story question:

▪ In mysteries — will the sleuth find the killer?

▪ In romances — will the boy get the girl?

▪ In thrillers — will the hero save the world?

Something important MUST be at stake in your story. If not literal life or death, then metaphorical life or death. When there’s nothing at stake, readers don’t care, and they won’t read.

For readers to care, your characters must care.

Let’s look at ways to create killers, saints, and idiots.

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1. One-word characterization: “killer”, “saint”, “idiot”…

Here’s an easy trick you can use to plan, plot, and create characters for all fiction.

Start with a one-word characterization: he’s not (undecided name), he’s the killer. She isn’t (undecided name), she’s the saint.

For a novel, start with six characters, all with one-word characterizations, rather than names. Choosing character names is always tricky (again, read Trollope, he has good names which suit his characters.) Sometimes I get to the end of a novel before I decide on a name.

Why wait to decide on a name? If you choose too soon, you can limit your character’s potential.

Read on for the “character ensemble” trick, but first, back to the story question.

2. Create a character who will help to solve the story question

As discussed above, know your story question. You don’t need to know details, a story seed is fine:

  • A stalker hunts Character A. Who is he, and want does he want? When she discovers what he wants, will she give it to him?
  • Character A’s son vanishes. The young man drove away to start college, but never arrived. Law enforcement won’t help. Will Character A find her son?

Your story question enables you to create a character about whom readers care.

3. Have fun writing fiction with quirky characters

Creating character quirks is fun, and quirks help make a character real, but avoid overdoing it.

Your character might:

  • Have a favorite pair of socks he always wears when he needs good luck;
  • Rescue stray animals, until his home is a menagerie;
  • Hum under his breath when driving, or checking his phone.

A character quirk or two goes a long way. More important than quirks, are a character’s attributes: your character might have a quick temper, or be intensively secretive.

What’s the difference between an attribute and a quirk?

An attribute will affect the story question, and the plot.

For example, perhaps your main character is scared of heights (attribute.) It affects the plot, because at the novel’s climax, he has to rescue someone who’s climbed onto a bridge. The climber is ready to dive into eternity, unless your character saves him… But he’s scared of heights. Now what?

Your character’s fear affects the story; it doesn’t matter that he drinks three, and only three, cups of coffee a day (a quirk.)

When you’re writing fiction, create a character ensemble

And finally, a BIG tip: create an ensemble of characters.

You want each character to be different from the others.

I’ve started planning a new serial. Characters are everything in serial fiction, as they are in all fiction. Rather than start with a story question, I’ve started with the setting: a lonely town, in the Australian outback, hundreds of miles from anywhere.

What characters might live there? Yes, I’ve got a killer, a saint and an idiot, as well as three other main characters for the ensemble. I’ve also chosen three one-word characterizations for the three baddies, who harass our “goody” characters.

Have fun when you’re writing fiction: create characters you enjoy, and to whom readers will react (emotion, emotion…)