When I open a novel for the first time—usually several per week until I find the right one—it’s because I’m attracted to the premise. But even a high-concept premise isn’t sufficient to hold my interest if characters don’t exhibit distinct personalities.
Paint me a portrait of each character, at least those crucial to the plot. No, not a flat paper doll image. I want sculpture. Better yet, one of those giant inflatable figures that wave from a parking lot as I drive past. Or an automaton in lifelike colors. Wait—a hologram. With audio. And smellio. Yeah, that’s it.
I want characters that intrigue me with their quirkiness or humble me with their kindness. If one can annoy me a little without making me so angry I turn my back on her, I’ll love her.
The right prose will form mental images of the characters as they move through the story: what they look like rising from bed in the morning, how they react to surprise, if they become grumpy when things don’t go their way, how they treat their mothers or their pets. Even if all those details aren’t revealed through the plot (and some should be, don’t you think?), I want to be able to imagine them based on the author’s art of characterization.
I’ve enjoyed some novels told from an omniscient point of view that portrayed the main characters very well. I felt connected to and invested in them. I cheered and shed tears for them. I cringed when they messed up.
Other novels have evoked those emotions through deep point of view. I felt as though I intimately knew each POV character (as intimately as anyone can know someone who’s fictional). The authors made me experience everything from within the POV characters’ skin and through their eyes. And deep point of view worked together with all the other elements of the story such as setting to Make. It. Real. It was like being in a movie playing inside my head.
Author, editor, and writing coach Fay Lamb explains this technique much better than I in The Art of Characterization. For years, I’ve followed her advice at The Tactical Editor, and I’m one of many fiction writers who are grateful she decided to compile and share some of her expertise in a book. Only 64 pages, this is a little gem from Write Integrity Press. If you’ve followed my blog, you already know that I love small books that pack a big dose of help for writers.
As the back cover describes, “Great storytelling isn’t done haphazardly. Storytelling is an art which requires practice to master. In The Art of Characterization authors are shown elements of storytelling which, when practiced correctly, utilizes forward-moving description and back story, deep point of view, dialogue, and conflict to create a cast of characters readers will never forget.”
Ms. Lamb is a multi-published novelist who writes emotionally-charged stories that “remind the reader that God is always in the details.” Her fiction titles include Libby, Charisse, Stalking Willow, and Better Than Revenge, among others.
The next time you cry your eyes out over a character, you know to blame the author’s art of characterization.