Characterization Improves Dialogue, Motivates Plot, and Enhances Theme

William H. Coles


Learning effective characterization for literary fiction is essential for great stories–characters imagined for best story effectiveness, created to reveal theme and meaning, and that drive plot action in some way and are not simply bystanders to fatalism.

Character traits for fiction, every one useful to consider, are readily available in texts on writing and online.  For examples: confident, conceited, domineering, outspoken, shy, short tempered, violent, passive, etc.  These traits tend to be descriptive about appearance (e.g. overweight), or about personality  (e.g. garrulous).

But for the serious, character-based writer, there are other characteristics useful for creating character-specific voice and dialogue, assuring synthesis of logical desires and emotions, and displaying levels of intellect and imagination of the character through the narrator.

Characters in great, lasting, stories are sculpted by every word chosen; the construction of every prose element; the rhythmic pacing; the character-specific accuracy of metaphors related to character development; and the actions and reaction to the plot, be it fatalistic or character-based, or both (usually).  To achieve this in fiction, an author creates from a broad knowledge of the world and humanity.  In almost every instance, character development is more effective when an author can imagine what the character feels, thinks, and does in the story setting.

These are thoughts about character traits presented as seeds for in-depth thinking about characterization.

Humor.

A sense of humor is essential for human bonding and social existence.  What makes the character laugh, and what triggers that response, reveals a core, inner self.  Irony is a form of humor that is complex.  Characters should be able to credibly contribute (from their authorial development) to the creation of story irony and be capable of understanding the story ironies at an intellectual and instinctual level.  How does the character being created form humor, and how is it used?

Civility.

Being polite and courteous to others springs from a caring about others feelings.  Does your character have a touch of civility or is the caring not enough to display civility.  This can be important in plotting, to maintain credible yet surprising plot progression and character interaction and conflict.  Good dialogue can use character civility both for identification and consistency of characterization for understandable motivation.  And a lack of civility can also motivate characters and drive plot.  

Morality.

Every human's concept of virtue and evil, good and bad, differs.  And morality contributes strongly as to how a character acts in a story, and is often a source of inner conflict.  What is the morality of a character?  How would it be expressed in in-scene development (most effective) and narrative description.   

Metaphor.

Inaccurate metaphors degrade the quality of writing and erode effective characterization.  Effective character-compatible metaphors are difficult to create; to error produces damaging effects on the quality of writing and storytelling. 

Religion

Does your character believe in a superior being?  Does that being direct their lives?  Is a divine presence vengeful, benevolent, just?  Do they pray?  Do they believe in human will, or predestination?  Important to carry religious belief of the character into dialogue, and often into theme too.

Voice.

Voice is everything a character–or narrator–does, thinks, says, or feels.  Most great fiction maintains distinct character and narrator voices in the creation, but in contemporary fiction, the authorial voice dominates  as the voice of the work of fiction without differentiation of characters' and narrator voices.  How is voice used in your fiction?  Can a character voice be easily identified?   FOOTNOTE.

Speech.

Speech for characters reveals how they think, and after a time, who they really are.  Dialogue for a writer is an effective way to build character.  But the dialogue must be crafted for a purpose, not just written as a description from life, or an imagined scene.  And, of course, dialogue is a major way to reveal character in scene without being told details by a narrator or author;  character speech allows a reader to develop a sense of the individuality of the character in the story, a phenomenon that occurs when the author has created characters with distinct voices and personalities.

Winning.

What does the character need to win . . . in the moment or in life?  This is an essence of fiction.  The character must need something, must want to win something.  Is it admiration, content, domination, superiority, revenge, love, etc.?  Real life is often a constant adjustment to get along . . . survive and procreate, without pain or threat of death.  But the fictional character, living in the story world of conflict and imbalance, must have a need to win something that will help make them unique.  And this winning is most effectively presented through action and dialogue.  Thoughts are secondary, since a character often doesn't know what they want.   And narrative description, with it's distance from the action and it's necessity to tell things that should be experienced by a reader along with the character, is often not the right choice by an author for best results. 

Fear.

What does your character fear, and how does that fear affect his or her life?

Hurt.

How do your characters hurt others.  Physically?  Psychologically?  Verbally?   Do they humiliate, condescend, disagree, lie, exaggerate, ridicule?  

Emotions.

What makes your character laugh and cry on both a daily level and throughout life.  Are emotional responses mainly positive (love, etc) or negative (anger, etc.).  Is your character displaying a range of emotions (it's best) and what emotion predominates?  Even though angry, passionate, focused, dedicated characters help drive plots, characters described from life are frequently depressed, loveless, and non-creative and seriously erode story and characterization.  Find predominant emotions and be sure that the majority of character emotions expressed in the story result in positive action, that is contribute to strong characterization and plot movement, and not contributing to negative action, which stops story momentum and tend to make characterization flat and uninteresting.

Victimization.

Strong effective characters often see themselves as victims of circumstance, or birth, and are most effectively created through an objective narrator, who can present the victimization without the self-pity, self absorption, and negativity that might be expressed through the character.  Victimization often acts as tragic flaw in a character and can precipitate nemesis, so it is very useful, yet it can also turn readers away from engaging and caring about the character.  If your character is controlled by victimization (being from a minority ethnic background, not being given or taught the skills to succeed, feeling the unjustness of being ignored, etc.), work to present the victimization objectively–although the character's view is almost always subjective–so the reader can identify and sympathize with the character's burden of victimization. 

Response to criticism.

How does your character respond to criticism?  As constructive?  With anger?  Pondering the value?  Criticism is often used to insert conflict in fiction, and your character's responses will need to be logical and credible while simultaneously being as unique and interesting as possible.

Memory.

How does a character remember things?  Does he or she always try to be accurate, and qualifying when they're not sure for the sake of honesty?  Or do they inflate or minimize for their own advantage.  What do they tend to forget, and why?

Gender.

Is the gender of the protagonist right for the story?  Would a change in gender be more engaging, provide better support for meaning, allow more accurate establishment of enjoyable voice?

Truth.

What is truth (in accordance with fact or reality) to the character? How does he or she perceive truth in his or her world, and how does it relate to the real world and the worlds of other characters.  (Potential for conflicts.)

Conformity.

Is the character concerned with social acceptance, rebellious against accepted norm, or just apathetic.  Does he or she conform to local, national, or world standards?  How does this desire to conform or not conform relate to the story being created?

Beauty.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what a character finds beautiful can reveal inner self . . . most often through dialogue and internal thoughts of characters so unique and valuable to prose.  Humans find pleasure in what they think is beautiful.  Music, art, motion, nature, proportion, symmetry or asymmetry, creating (a chef, for example), and many others.  How might your character react to these contrasts of beauty:

ART

MOTION

SOUND

ARCHITECTURE

NATURE

To create your characters' choices about what is beautiful to them can have great value for an author.  These choices may never be expressed directly in the prose, but what is beautiful to a character can be revealing and used for creating dynamic fascinating individuals.  And the character who never knows a sense of beauty will add a special slant on story motives and theme.

Summary

Great literary fictional characters are created for a story purpose that will please a reader, and, to be most effective, are not described from reality or imagined reality as an author achievement.  To create effective characters, an author must build the character word by word, idea by idea, action by action.  It means, to be good storytellers, authors must be able to live as the character would speak and think , and empathize with the character's choices.  Few writers attain this skill, but all should try.

Afterword

Examples of character development: 
Heathcliff and Catherine (Wuthering Heights); Anna Karenina and Levin; Homer's Odysseus; Jane Eyre; Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and Mr Collins (Pride and Prejudice); Helen and Mr. Wilcox (Howard's End); Freddy and Fredericka; Emma (Madame Bovary; Randall Patrick McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest); Rodion Raskolinikov (Crime and Punishment); Charles Marlow (The Heart of Darkness); "The Stone Boy"; "Miss Harriet"; Felicite in A Simple Heart (Flaubert).


FOOTNOTE.

Creating characters with distinct voices unique to their developed characteristics in a story provides the skill the serious author of character-based fiction can use to create memorable stories with significant meaning.  In the past half century there has been the tendency to write fiction with an all pervasive authorial voice created by an author intent on describing events (usually personally experienced) rather than creating story through action and conflict.  For the most part, this trend has produced energy-deficient fiction and meaningless storytelling.  Characterization has diminished to physical description and avoids character action; logical, credible, unique character motivation; and desire.

In successful fictional works–works that are remembered , reread, and will pass to future generations–characters are created by  a writer as  separate humans.  Successful characterization is the element of a great story that drives action, creates ironies, and embeds humor.  Effective dialogue–with action and reaction, and internalization–is ideally expressed through the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of the character, a process  unique to fiction as a storytelling medium.

 

 


Read other essays on writing by William H. Coles

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