Writing Fiction: The Keys to Characterization

writing fiction characterizationSerious music students practice their scales, learning the notes by rote before they ever play a piece of music. They play the same piece over and over, receiving correction from a teacher until playing at a satisfactory level. Likewise, a writer who uses a spelling, grammar, and plagiarism checking tool to review a piece can learn from the corrections, improving her finished product. The writer who studies her craft can learn to play symphonies, while the writer who shuns formal learning and relies solely on instinct may find herself stuck playing “Chopsticks.”

What is Characterization?

Talent and learning must come together to produce great writing. Like spelling and grammar, characterization is a skill that can be learned. Characterization is, simply defined, the process by which the author reveals a character to the reader.

Details like mannerisms, dialogue, and physical appearance all contribute to the building of the character in the reader’s mind. The reader gets to know the characters through the process of characterization.

Characters, like people, reveal themselves through various means. Dialogue, appearance, speech, and the effect a person has on those who already know him all play a part in forming our assumptions of a character. Characterization can be either direct or indirect, and both types fall into one of several categories.

Direct & Indirect Characterization

Direct characterization should be used sparingly. Description of a character’s appearance, mannerism, personality, or habits is direct characterization. A common ploy, especially among new or inexperienced authors, is to have the character studying himself or herself in a mirror. The technique, when the writer uses the opportunity to simply describe the physical characteristics, results in the impression of a narcissistic character obsessed with his or her appearance, unless the physical description is secondary to the character’s thoughts and feelings about his or her appearance.

In Piers Anthony’s book Ogre, Ogre the main character, Tandy, examines herself in a mirror:

She was nineteen years old, but she looked like a child in her nightie and lady-slippers, her brown tresses mussed from constant squirming, her blue eyes peering out worriedly. She wished she looked more like her mother- but of course no human person could match the pretty faces and fantastic figures of nymphs.

From this short paragraph, the reader learns that Tandy is childlike, with brown hair and blue eyes, but far more of Tandy’s character and current state of mind is revealed than her physical statistics. The reader sees a troubled young woman, the child of a mythological creature who is slightly insecure in her own emerging womanhood.

Characterization with Dialogue

Actions may speak louder than words, but in writing, speech is the primary tool for revealing a character to the reader. Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of conveying not only information that moves the story forward, but details about the speaker.

Grammar, word choice, dialect, accent, tone, and delivery all come together to paint an indelible picture in the reader’s mind. Dialogue may be spoken (external) or written (internal). A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Well-crafted dialogue will paint a picture in the reader’s mind, revealing clues about age, education, social status, attitude, worldview, and bent, that would take pages of pure description to create.

A Character’s Effect on Others

The effect a character has on others is another subtle yet important tool. The character who commands an air of respect is likely the hero, while the one who inspires sneers may be the villain or the underdog. Lemony Snicket, in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, used the children’s first impression of Count Olaf to strongly influence the reader’s view of the villain:

They wondered … whether, for the rest of their lives, they would always feel as though Count Olaf were watching them even when he wasn’t nearby.

The Effects of a Character’s Name

What’s in a name? A character’s name can be an indicator of their basic personality. Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape both have memorable and sinister-sounding names that fit their personalities. Bilbo Baggins sounds like a respectable sort of individual from a long line of stolid ancestors. Huckleberry Finn is the ideal handle for the delinquent child of a drunken vagabond. By employing a combination of direct and indirect characterization techniques, the writer can create characters that come to life on the page.

Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.

51 Gift Ideas for Writers

Last year’s gift idea post was a hit, so I thought I’d update the list for 2013! Here are 51 more holiday gift ideas for writers. Buy that special writer in your life something cool, or reward yourself for being awesome.

Literary Art

Literary Art

Dead Writers Perfume

Dead Writers Perfume

Library Book Necklace

Library Book Necklace

storytelling dice

Storytelling Dice

Vintage Typewriter

Vintage Typewriter

Writer's Journal

Writer’s Journal

Writer's Remedy Magnetic Poetry

Writer’s Remedy Magnetic Poetry

Writer's Block Motivational Cube

Writer’s Block Motivational Cube

Writer's Toolbox

Writer’s Toolbox

The Writer's Journey

The Writer’s Journey

2014 Writer's Market

2014 Writer’s Market

Writers on Writing

Writers on Writing

Novelist Warning Sign

Novelist Warning Sign

Writer's Dream Kit

Writer’s Dream Kit

Vinyl Writers - Shakespeare

Vinyl Writers – Shakespeare

Vinyl Writers - Twain

Vinyl Writers – Twain

Vinyl Writers - Woolf

Vinyl Writers – Woolf

Cult Writers Badge Set

Cult Writers Badge Set

Words Are Magic Print

Words Are Magic Print

Sylvia Plath Poster

Sylvia Plath Poster

Ernest Hemingway Poster

Ernest Hemingway Poster

Oscar Wilde Poster

Oscar Wilde Poster

Grammar Police T-Shirt

Grammar Police T-Shirt

Fountain Pen Cuff Links

Fountain Pen Cuff Links

Word Warrior Luggage Tag

Word Warrior Luggage Tag

Shakespeare Emroidered Towel

Shakespeare Emroidered Towel

Writing is Hell Bracelet

Writing is Hell Bracelet

Writer's Block Soap

Writer’s Block Soap

Write Bookmark

Write Bookmark

Digital Recorder

Digital Recorder

Espresso Machine

Espresso Machine

Writing Desk

Writing Desk

Finding Forrester

Finding Forrester

Writer's Shoulder Bag

Writer’s Shoulder Bag

Writer Charm Necklace

Writer Charm Necklace

Patron Saint of Writers Necklace

Patron Saint of Writers Necklace

Emily Dickinson Print

Emily Dickinson Print

Shakespeare Mug

Shakespeare Mug

Kick-Ass Writer

Kick-Ass Writer

Poets & Writers Magazine

Poets & Writers Magazine

Neck Wrap

Neck Wrap

Fingerless Gloves

Fingerless Gloves

Personalized Journal

Personalized Journal

Monogrammed Glass Pen

Monogrammed Glass Pen

Writer's Year Calendar

Writer’s Year Calendar

Appointment Calendar for Writers

Calendar for Writers

Word-A-Year Calendar

Word-A-Year Calendar

Personalized Pencil Pouch

Personalized Pencil Pouch

Novel Writing Templates

Novel Writing Templates

Final Draft Software

Final Draft Software

Authors Card Game

Authors Card Game

He’s Gone

As something like a foreword, I’d like to say this took me months to write, and it still feels like it’s not enough. I’m hoping the writing and publishing of it all will help with the grief. I still feel it plenty.

358_543064751994_3991_n Tuesday night I had a horrible dream. I dreamed that my dog Taubensee was alive, but still sick. I dreamed he had somehow come back to life after being put to sleep. And in the dream I was overcome with grief at the realization that I had tried to kill him when he wasn’t ready to die.

If you’re a pet lover, I don’t have to explain why Wednesday morning was a serious struggle for me.

***

Taubensee was my first pet. I adopted him in 2000, and the only things I really knew about pet ownership at the time were: 1) I wanted a dog, 2) it was absolutely essential the dog have floppy ears, and 3) I was going to name whichever dog I adopted after my favorite Cincinnati Reds catcher–no matter what.

After visiting a few shelters and not feeling that thing, I found Taubensee in the back room of the Warrick Humane Society. I was twenty; he was barely four weeks. He was so young and so new to the shelter that he was being held in the quarantine area until a vet could look him over and make sure everything checked out okay. He could be adopted, but he couldn’t be taken home just yet.

He was the tiniest, fluffiest, shivering-est, ball of fur I’d ever seen. He was curled up in a towel facing the corner, all alone.

All alone like me on my first day of kindergarten. I couldn’t even see his face, but I understood him immediately: It’s not shy or anti-social if you just prefer being alone.  If Taubensee could have taken a Myers-Briggs assessment, he’d have been an INFJ like me. There’s no doubt in my mind.

***

In the early days, when Taub and I were trying to work out a schedule, I’d often have to let him outside in the wee hours. I’d crawl back in bed rather than wait for him to finish his business by the back door, because he was always pokey and I was always groggy. Besides, he’d let me know when he was ready to come back in by letting out a bark or two by the bedroom window.

Until he came up with a better idea.375404_967838956084_1476812928_n

One night I was startled by the sound of a great thud! against the house right outside my bedroom window. It was immediately followed by the sound of something screeching and slipping against the aluminum siding. I went to the back door and found Taubensee sopping wet on the back stoop, more than ready to come inside. I toweled him off. We went to bed.

The next morning when I went out back there were puppy paw prints and streaks of mud on the siding under the window. Apparently Taub had jumped at the bedroom window during the night to get my attention. Unable to grab a hold of anything, he slid down the wall, trails of mud marking his descent. By my estimation he’d thrown himself at the house at least a dozen times.

***

When Taubensee was three, I witnessed him having a seizure for the first time. Watching my precious Puppybutt on the kitchen floor convulsing was horrible. I didn’t know what to do, so I pretty much just resorted to hysterics.

The seizure eventually ended, I called the vet, and in relatively short order, Taubensee was diagnosed with canine epilepsy. He took phenobarbital morning and night for ten years. It always came wrapped in a tiny treat, accompanied by a head scratch and a “Goooooood puppy!” (said in that low, dumb voice that dog owners often use).

The medicine didn’t stop his seizures entirely, but when they did surface, they were shorter and milder. I was so relieved. When a seizure did break through, Taubensee’s ability to walk was usually the first thing to go. His joints wouldn’t bend, and his muscles just wouldn’t cooperate no matter how hard he tried. Still he’d paw and lean his way as close to me as he could get.

I’d meet him halfway–well, probably more–and I’d pet him and tell him I loved him until the shaking ended. When it was all over I’d say, “Want a treat?” and he’d run to Treat Station (the place where the puppy treats were stored in the kitchen, duh) like nothing had ever happened.

***

5296_595439422734_6829330_nFor thirteen years people told me I really had something special. And I knew it was true. Taub was the Best. Dog. Ever. He never drank from the toilet. He never sniffed a crotch. He only jumped up on family. He never ran away. He curled up in a ball and slept on car rides.

He climbed in the bathtub all by himself. All I had to do was run the water, call his name, and point to the tub. He’d reluctantly climb in and await further instruction.

***

Taubensee had been a snorer since he was about five, but it wasn’t the loud, disruptive snore of a 200-pound human. It was a soothing, sleep-inducing reminder that your best friend was close by and everything was right.

But one night in July I noticed Taubensee’s breathing at night was really loud and labored. I called the vet, Dan took him the next morning. They did X-rays, and his lungs looked cloudy. We tried a few things, but nothing really worked and so the vet didn’t delay in referring him to a specialist. Taubensee was admitted for some tests and kept overnight. He was clearly sick, dehydrated, and malnourished.

We left him in the care of the staff at the emergency vet, and spent the next couple of days in Milwaukee for a funeral. Dan’s father had passed away.

I called the vet to check on Taubensee while we were away. They’d put him on an IV, they were syringe feeding him. On our way back from Milwaukee, we stopped at the veterinary hospital to pick him up.

He wagged his tail at us, but his tail was heartbreakingly lower than usual. He was looking better because they’d been pumping him full of fluids, but he was still lethargic. Still struggling to breathe.

In the last few hours we had Taubensee at home, Dan and I carried him everywhere: outside, upstairs, downstairs, to his food bowl. We lifted him into his favorite chair. We tried forcing medicine and food down his throat, but he refused. His last night at home, I put an air mattress on the floor, and Taub and I slept side-by-side.

We took him back to the emergency vet the next day, where I explained we couldn’t get him to eat or take his medicine. When the vet tech interpreted what I was unable to say, I broke down in tears in the lobby.

Taubensee was 13, and to the best of our knowledge he died of cancer. They did a couple of different tests to try and verify what was wrong during the whole ordeal, but they were inconclusive. What we did know is there were lots of spots on his lungs, and he could hardly take in a breath. More tests weren’t going to make him feel better.

I know why they call it “putting to sleep.” Because he passed away peacefully, with his head in my lap. He looked me straight in the eye while I cooed at him, and then he became totally relaxed. His breathing eased, and Dan and I mooshed him and told him we loved him until the vet said, “He’s gone.”

 

Taubensee

January 8, 2000 — August 4, 2013

I Do (and Read) What I Want

So, remember how in my last post I was all, “I’ve got ideas for this blog” and “contributors” and “news forthcoming.”

Yeeeah, no.

After further reflection, I’ve decided the last thing I want to do right now is give myself another writing project. The day job and my freelancing work provide the perfect number of deadlines for the time being.

Besides, I’m enjoying coming home from work with energy left to exercise my brain, so I’ve been letting myself indulge in books. Since moving to Champaign, I’ve read:

That might not seem like a lot for the hardcore book nerds out there, but eight books since September trumps my January through August average by, like, I dunno…a lot. I attribute my newfound energy and desire to read again to two things: going back to Central Time and having access to natural daylight at the new day job.

Anyway, of the eight titles listed, I’d have to say that In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin was my favorite. Despite the horrible title, it was a fascinating read. It’s by Erik Larson, the guy who wrote Devil in the White City, and it follows the lives of the reluctant American ambassador to Germany and his family at the time Hitler was coming to power

A fair number of people on Goodreads complained about how much attention Larson gave to the ambassador’s daughter’s scandalous love life. I think those people are idiots. First of all, her diary provided a first-person account of a historically significant period. Second of all, that a member of the Nazi party tried to set her up with Hitler, that she fell in love with a guy in the Russian military, that she slept with whomever she pleased in 19-freaking-33, that her escapades complicated life for her dad—those things are damn relevant to a story about the ambassador and his family.

My one caution: Because Larson quotes primary sources where he can, the prose can get a little clunky. This one reads closer to the non-fiction it is, where Devil in the White City reads a little more novel-like. Prepare yourself for grammatical structures that are a little more complicated than “See Dick run.”