Thursday, July 1, 2010

14 Tips for Effective Characterization

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

The next James River Writers' Conference will be here before you know it and as a member of JRW, I wanted to pass along a few things I found interesting at our last conference. The discussion I most enjoyed centered on CHARACTERIZATION in NOVELS. A panel of three successful authors held this particular seminar.

One panelist indicated the best writing era for character research was the 1880’s to the 1920’s. He said when writing your book, read novels from that time period to learn how to improve upon your characterization.

Another idea they mentioned is show your readers how a character walks, stutters, or whatever. This makes the character more memorable. This made me think of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, when Marty Feldman who played a hunchback, shuffled off. He told Wilder to, “Walk this way.” He meant for Dr. Frankenstein to follow him, of course. However, the good doctor shambled off like a hunchback, too. Obviously this is a useful tool as I’ve kept that image in my mind for how long, thirty years?

This leads into the next recommendation the panelists made. They said to bridge characters within chapters when you write your novel. By this they meant to carry a character's oddities from one chapter to the next. For example, if you have a character who shows irritation by flicking his fingers, (thanks, Richard), have him flick his fingers a number of times throughout your novel.

A time-tested avenue for writers is to pit contrasting characters against each other. Think Laurel and Hardy or Lucy and Ricky. (Am I the only one who remembers these people?) Or, for a more modern example, think the cast of Friends.

Put your characters in situations foreign to them. Think fish out of water. A good example is a goody-two-shoes in a gang fight. Your character's personality will shine in those odd situations.

Never, and they repeated the word, never put your characters in front of a mirror. Yes, there is an exception in Snow White, but then again, even James Bond learned “never” never means never. Right?

The bad guy can always rationalize his actions. He’s not insane, he’s evil.

Here’s a good one! Find contradiction in your novel’s characters. Imagine our goody-two-shoes who finally succumbs to the neighbor’s wife’s enchantments. You could also write about the vegetarian who is forced to eat meat to stay alive. This idea can present wonderful conflict opportunities, don't you think?

Characters must want something in every chapter. Do they all get their wishes fulfilled? Not if you’re looking for readers.

Put your characters in an argument as this, too, will bring out their personalities. This is the fundamental turning point in my current novel, so I'm glad to hear it works.

I thought this tip interesting and will incorporate it into my later manuscripts. Your character should be recognizable from the silhouette. They cautioned that this can get out of hand quickly if you're not careful.

For authenticity when you name characters, find popular names during the decades in which they live. Sites of this nature are all over the Internet.

Another tip I liked also surfaced. If a gun is seen in chapter one, it must be fired by chapter four. There's a name for this concept which I failed to write down.

And what was the most important of all these great writer’s tips? “Write what bubbles up.” That is, trust your Muse and pen what comes naturally to you.

What other tips might you wish to share to bring out the personalities of your characters?

I hope you know by now I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the now-at-the-editors, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. Fantastic post! You always look out for writers in such an informative, genuine way. May we link you for Friday? Thanks so much!

  2. C. Patrick SchulzeJuly 1, 2010 at 5:29 PM

    Yes, of course you may like to the article. I'm flattered when you do.