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Characterization Improves Dialogue, Motivates Plot, and Enhances Theme

by William H. Coles

Learning effective characterization for literary fiction is essential for great stories:–imagined characters 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: confident, conceited, domineering, outspoken, shy, short tempered, violent, passive, etc., for examples.  These common traits often tend to be descriptive about appearance (e.g. overweight), or about personality  (e.g. garrulous).  But for the serious, character-based fiction writer, there are other characteristics essential for creating character-specific voice and dialogue, assuring synthesis of logical desires and emotions in characters, and displaying levels of intellect and imagination of the character.

Consider these thoughts for in-depth thinking about characterization in fiction.


A sense of humor is essential for human bonding and social existence. What makes the character laugh, and what triggers that response, reveals the core, inner self.  Irony is a complex form of humor that should often be part of character development.  In general, how is a specific character humorous and how does that character respond to story humor?


Being polite and courteous to others springs from a caring about others’ feelings.  Does your character have a touch of civility or is the character unable to display civility.  This can be important in plotting and 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.  


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.  Every story acts in a moral cobweb, and individual character morality may differ for ironic and dramatic effects. 


Inaccurate metaphors (she looked like a decaying walrus) that degrade are to be avoided.  Effective character-compatible metaphors are difficult to create . . . to error produces damaging effects on the quality of writing and storytelling. 


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


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 often dominates as the voice of the work of fiction without differentiation of characters’ and narrators’ voices.  How is voice used in your fiction?  Can a character voice be easily identified?   FOOTNOTE.


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, to fill space.  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.


What does the character need to win . . . in the moment or in life?  This is an essence of fictional story. The character must desire 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, for most literary storytelling, this winning is most effectively presented through action and dialogue. 


What does your character fear, and how does that fear affect his or her life?  Examples: fear of failure, fear of drowning, fear of humiliation, fear of death, etc.


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


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 contribute to negative action that stops story momentum and tends to make characterization flat and uninteresting.


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.


How does a character remember things?  Does he or she always try to be accurate, 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?


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?


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.)


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


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what a character finds beautiful can reveal inner self . . . most often through dialogue and the 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:






To create your characters’ choices about what is beautiful or not can add dimension to your character and story.  These choices about beauty may never be expressed directly in the prose, but revealing characters attitudes through action, dialogue, internalization can help create dynamic fascinating individuals. 

Characters in great, lasting, stories are sculpted by (1) every word chosen; (2) the construction of every prose element; (3) the rhythmic pacing; (4) the character-specific accuracy of metaphors related to character development; (5) 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 imagines what the character (not the author) feels, thinks, and does in the story setting.


Great literary fictional characters are created for a story purpose that will please a reader, and, to be most effective, are not described in exact detail from reality or imagined reality as an authorial 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.


Examples of character development in literature:
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).

Recommended stories of William H. Coles demonstrating character development:

Novels: McDowellSpirit of Want

Short Stories: “The Gift” / “The Amish Girl” / “On the Road to Yazoo City” / “The Miracle of Madame Villard” / “The Stonecutter” / “Big Gene” / “Speaking of the Dead” / “Facing Grace with Gloria”


Creating characters with distinct voices is a skill the serious author of character-based fiction uses 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 imagined action, reflection, and conflict. For the most part, this trend has produced energy-deficient fiction and often 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 with the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of the character, a process unique to fictional prose as a storytelling medium.



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