Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Craft of Characterizing on the Page

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

On Monday, Stephanie talked about how to write characters who are different from each other. Today, I want to show you how that looks on the page. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to take a look at examples from books. What it all comes down to, though, is knowing your characters so well that you can write dialogue, actions, and thoughts that show who they are. It also helps a great deal if you set them up to shine. Rather than have two characters standing around talking about a football game, invent scenes in which you can place characters so they will conflict with each other in some interesting way.

Let's look at some examples of characterizing on the page. In the first few examples, I put my observations in brackets beside bits that characterize, then gave a summary after each section.

Characterizing in Dialogue

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J. K. Rowling
        A lamp flickered on. It was Hermione Granger, wearing a pink bathrobe and a frown. [It's the frown that is so much her character. She disapproves of their actions.]
        “You!” said Ron furiously. “Go back to bed!” [Hermione rubs Ron the wrong way. He loses his temper with her a lot.]
        “I almost told your brother,” Hermione snapped, “Percy—he’s a prefect, he’d put a stop to this.” [She's throwing around threats. She does that a lot.]
        Harry couldn’t believe anyone could be so interfering.
        “Come on,” he said to Ron. He pushed open the portrait of the Fat Lady and climbed through the hole. [As usual, Harry is all about the job. He's got important things to do.]
        Hermione wasn’t going to give up that easily. She followed Ron through the portrait hole, hissing at them like an angry goose.
        “Don’t you care about Gryffindor, do you only care about yourselves, I don’t want Slytherin to win the house cup, and you’ll lose all the points I got from Professor McGonagall for knowing about Switching Spells.” [She wants them to behave. She wants to beat Slytherin. And she's even more annoyed that these boys might lose the points she earned, undoing the reward she deserves!]
        “Go away.”
        “All right, but I warned you, you just remember what I said when you’re on the train home tomorrow, you’re so—” [More threats.]
        But what they were, they didn’t find out. Hermione had turned to the portrait of the Fat Lady to get back inside and found herself facing an empty painting. The Fat Lady had gone on a nighttime visit and Hermione was locked out of Gryffindor tower.
        “Now what am I going to do?” she asked shrilly. [Hermione freaks out because she doesn't like the idea of getting into trouble. At this point in the series, she's a perfect person who can do no wrong--or so she thinks, anyway.]
        “That’s your problem,” said Ron. “We’ve got to go, we’re going to be late.” [Ron tells it like it is. Bluntly.]
        They hadn’t even reached the end of the corridor when Hermione caught up with them.
        “I’m coming with you,” she said.
        “You are not.”
        “D’you think I’m going to stand out here and wait for Filch to catch me? If he finds all three of us I’ll tell him the truth, that I was trying to stop you, and you can back me up.” [She's still thinking about herself and the rules and that's all that matters. Classically legalistic.]
        “You’ve got some nerve—” said Ron loudly. [Again Ron, loudly, points out the obvious.]
        “Shut up, both of you!” said Harry sharply. “I heard something.” [Harry, all about the job, still.]
        It was a sort of snuffling.
        “Mrs. Norris?” breathed Ron, squinting through the dark. [Ron is often terrified by lots of things.]
        It wasn’t Mrs. Norris. It was Neville. He was curled up on the floor, fast asleep, but jerked suddenly awake as they crept nearer.
        “Thank goodness you found me! I’ve been out here for hours, I couldn’t remember the new password to get in to bed.” [Classic Neville. Forced to sleep in the hall because he forgot the password. Didn't occur to him to go for help. He just makes the best of it.]
        “Keep your voice down, Neville. The password’s ‘Pig snout’ but it won’t help you now, the Fat Lady’s gone off somewhere.” [There is no "said tag" to prove this is Hermione, but we can tell by her instructive dialogue.]
        “How’s your arm?” said Harry. [Harry is often thoughtful, especially to unpopular people.]
        “Fine,” said Neville, showing them. “Madam Pomfrey mended it in about a minute.”
        “Good—well, look, Neville, we’ve got to be somewhere, we’ll see you later—” [Harry, all about the job.]
        “Don’t leave me!” said Neville, scrambling to his feet, “I don’t want to stay here alone, the Bloody Baron’s been past twice already.” [Neville might be the only person more terrified by lots of thing than Ron.]
        Ron looked at his watch and then glared furiously at Hermione and Neville. [Ron is easily annoyed and bluntly rude about it.]
        “If either of you get us caught, I’ll never rest until I’ve learned that Curse of the Bogies Quirrell told us about, and used it on you.” [Ron also likes gross threats.]
        Hermione opened her mouth, perhaps to tell Ron exactly how to use the Curse of the Bogies, but Harry hissed at her to be quiet and beckoned them all forward. [Harry's being all about the job cut off Hermione's attempt to be bossy.]
        They flitted along corridors striped with bars of moonlight from the high windows. At every turn Harry expected to run into Filch or Mrs. Norris, but they were lucky. They sped up a staircase to the third floor and tiptoed toward the trophy room.
        Malfoy and Crabbe weren’t there yet. The crystal trophy cases glimmered where the moonlight caught them. Cups, shields, plates, and statues winked silver and gold in the darkness. They edged along the walls, keeping their eyes on the doors at either end of the room. Harry took out his wand in case Malfoy leapt in and started at once. The minutes crept by.
        “He’s late, maybe he’s chickened out,” Ron whispered. [Ron likes to jump to dramatic conclusions.]
        Then a noise in the next room made them jump. Harry had only just raised his wand when they heard someone speak and it wasn’t Malfoy.
        “Sniff around, my sweet, they might be lurking in a corner.” [Filtch, talking to his cat, as always.]

So, with a lot of dialogue and very little action--they got locked out of the tower, walked a little, Harry pulled out his wand--there was a lot of characterizing in this scene. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, and even Filtch's personalities all came through really well.

Characterizing with Dialogue in Different Eras

Shades of Milk and Honey 
by Mary Robinette Kowal

        "Did you see him, Jane?"
        "Who?" Jane said, as she drew Melody to the side of the floor, though she knew well who Melody meant. [Jane is taking care that her little sister is out of the way of the dancers.]
        "Captain Livingston! If there is a more handsome, graceful man, I know not where to find him. He is all that is courtesy. And wit! La! Such which he has, and his tales of his work with the Navy are fascinating. He has made a fortune for himself with his captures, and at so young in age." [We can see how excited Melody is by this man. She is exuberant and long-winded. And what she likes characterizes her. She likes his wit, his manners, his compliments, his youth, and his fortune.]
        "I am certain you did not think so highly of him when he left a frog in your sewing kit." [Jane reminds her sister that he was a pest when they were children.]
        Melody laughed. "Indeed. He reminded me of that as we were dancing. So droll. He said that had he known what a beauty I would become, he would have left roses for me instead." [Oh, yes. She likes the guy.]
        "I am certain he would have still left frogs. Boys at that age do not think of girls and roses in the same thought." [Ever the practical big sister. She is not about to get over-excited over the flattery of a man.]
        "You are cruel, Jane. He is so noble and gracious." [This shows a little conflict between them. Melody doesn't like how Jane makes light of her big moment, so she takes a stab at Jane's character.]
        "Were he truly gracious, he would not keep your hand through three sets of dance. Truly Melody, I thought you knew better." [Jane counters with a stab at the captain's character, then takes a stab at Melody as well, scolding like a true big sister who thinks she must mother her younger siblings. She might be right, but her delivery baits her sister and therefore nulls any wisdom she had in her words.]
        Melody stopped and tossed her head, eyes sparkling. "And I thought better of you. Jealousy is unbecoming on you, dear sister. It is not my fault he finds me beautiful." [Melody jumps to the conclusion that her sister's comments are all due to jealousy. It sure feels like they've had similar fights like this before.]

This dialogue gives us a clear picture of two sisters with a little rivalry between them. Jane is a great deal older and still unmarried. The setting is Regency England, which makes Jane's unmarried status a bit of a blight and therefore makes Melody feel superior, with all her handsome suitors.

Characterizing with Narrative

Characterizing in Narrative isn't as popular in books today as it was in the past since it is telling rather than showing. Still, it can be a powerfully effective way of characterizing from the start.

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

"Fifteen- year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it."
This paragraph tells us much about Jo March. We see her as an awkward adolescent, all hands and feet. She is very much a tomboy. I love visuals of "colt" and "flyaway look." And the way she bundles her "one beauty" into a net tells us that she couldn't care less about being pretty.  The paragraph ends by letting us know that Jo is not pleased about growing up, and this is an important clue to many of Jo's trials to come.

A more recent example of characterizing with narrative would be how Markus Zuzak describes Liesel's adoptive parents in The Book Thief.

Characterizing with Reflection

Readers can learn a lot from how a character reflects on something that has happened, especially in first person stories. While the following excerpt comes late in the story, it shows us a lot about Mia's character. She is outraged here, but we also see that she is hard on herself--calls herself a stupid sap. She tends to be dramatic and overreacts, always expecting the worst. She has an active imagination that she uses to entertain herself and make her worrisome personality a little lighter. But she usually always ends with a doomsday tone.

The Princess Diaries
by Meg Cabot

        How could I have ever liked him? He's such a user. He totally used me! He purposefully hurt Lana and then tried to use me. And I played right into his hands like the stupid sap that I am.
        What am I going to do? When my dad sees that photograph, he is going to FLIP OUT. There is no way I will ever be able to explain that it wasn't my fault. Maybe if I'd punched Josh in the stomach in front of all those cameras, maybe then my dad would believe I was an innocent bystander….
        But probably not.
        I will never be allowed out of the house with a boy again, ever, for the rest of my natural life.

Characterizing with Action/Reaction

We can learn a lot about characters based on the things they do, by what captures their interest (also what they describe), and how they react to others. From this excerpt from my book, The New Recruit, we learn that Spencer has been arrested before--more than once. And we also learn that he is tall based on how he describes himself.

        A dozen knots formed in my stomach. I’d been in a squad car only twice before. And even though I’d been arrested those other times, I’d never been as freaked out as I was now. Because I hadn’t done anything this time.
        I slouched back on the seat as far as I could and adjusted my legs, trying to fit in the small space. I felt like a pipe cleaner inside a Hot Wheels car.

In the following excerpt from my book, Captives, we see Mason's interaction with a woman from the Safe Lands. Their dialogue characterizes them as quite different from one another, but also take note of Mason's politeness and his reaction, not when the woman touches him, but after she comments on his skin.

        “I’m here to task with Ciddah Rourke. The task director general sent me. Are you Miss Rourke?”
        The woman cackled, her mouth so wide Mason could see her the back of her throat. “I’m Rimola. I task in reception. I’m so glad you’re here. Not only are you yummy to look at, now I won’t have rotate to a task where I need to take vitals or stock the rooms with— You’re going to be here every week for six months, right?”
        Mason fumbled for the sheet of paper Dallin had given him. “I suspect that is the Registration Department’s intention for me.” Though Mason planned to be back in Glenrock long before then.
        Rimola gasped. “Are you an outsider?”
        “I’m not from the Safe Lands, no.”
        She reached out. “Can I shake your hand?”
        Mason extended his arm, and Rimola pulled him toward her, rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand. “Fortune be praised, you’re soft! I heard all outsiders were rough and leathery.”
        Mason pulled free and stepped back from the desk. “Miss Rimola, I .. well … Please let Ciddah Rourke know that I’ve arrived.” He walked to the farthest chair from the desk and sat down.

Characterizing with Description

What a character describes and how a character describes are two ways to show who they are. Achan was raised in a kitchen, so he sometimes describes things in a culinary way, as we see in this excerpt from By Darkness Hid.

Outside the manor, dozens of tents and pavilions had popped up like tarts in the northern field, each waving colorful banners and crests.

Achan is a simple guy who lives in a medieval world, so he thinks of things in regards to the world around him, and he doesn't beat around the bush. Here are a few descriptions from To Darkness Fled, in which Achan describes people he is meeting for the first time.

●A thin man with a face like a possum slouched on a throne-like chair opposite the door. He had fine grey hair, a large nose, and beady black eyes.
●Achan recognized the young man’s pale, freckled face and shock of orange hair immediately. Sir Septon Eli himself. A man barely older than Achan.
●The dirty-faced tot was no more than seven. He had a thatch of blond hair over big brown eyes.

For contrast, take note how Vrell describes Achan in the same novel. From her description we can see that she clearly likes clothing and details.
[Achan] stood with Lord Eli at the entrance to the great hall, looking every bit like a rich, exotic prince. He wore a black leather doublet over a royal blue tunic embroidered with silver thread. The sleeves dangled past his fingertips. Silver buckles cinched black trousers below his knees where they met shiny black boots. His black hair slicked back into a braided tail, held in place by a sparkling jewel. No bandage covered his scruffy cheeks, but his facial hair had been trimmed into the start of a beard that would eventually hide his scars.

Here are some other posts about characterizing that you might find helpful:

Can you share in the comments an example from your writing using one of these methods of characterizing?


  1. This is really interesting, Jill. I love the way you broke your examples down into different methods of showing your characters personalities. I hadn't really thought about action/reaction before.

  2. I've definitely gotten better at characterization lately. Maybe due to the fact that I'm finally letting the characters tell their stories rather than forcing them into the roles I want them in. They've taken the reins, I'm just writing everything down. It's especially noticeable in their dialogue. These scenes are from chapters I haven't written yet, but they are perfect examples of characterization for three of my characters because the situations are similar but handled differently.

    Keep in mind they're just dialogue at the moment and are from Darcy's first person POV.

    Scene 1: Alexander (the detective) and Darcy (the head of the largest crime syndicate in the city)
    “You? You’re the head of the largest crime syndicate in the city?”
    “Yes. And you’re point is?”
    “I just… I was expecting—”
    “Who? A man?”
    “Good, it would be tragic if you were not only a police officer, but a sexist one at that.”
    “I’m actually a detective.”
    “A detective? How fancy. So, Detective, what do you want? Because if you’re here to arrest me well…let’s just say it won’t end well for you and leave it at that.”

    Scene 2: Alexander, Darcy, and Vance (a suave British vampire)
    “Darcy Mac, looking lovely as always! How long has it been?”
    “Not long enough.”
    “How’s that cousin of yours?”
    “Better now that she’s not with you.”
    “I doubt that. Tell me Poppet, if you’re not here to reminisce, what do you need?”
    “Information that only you can provide.”
    “That’s my Darcy. Always pulling out the big guns. What about Mr. Shiny Shoes here?”
    “He’s harmless, Vance.”
    “Uh huh, come along ducklings into my office.”
    “Now, Darcy, please explain why you’ve brought a cop into my establishment?”
    “I’m actually a detective,” Alexander retorted, his tone indignant at being verbally demoted.
    Vance arched a slim eyebrow. “There’s a difference?”
    I snapped my fingers and like obedient dogs their attention returned to me.
    “I’m helping Detective Kawigawa with a case.”

    1. Fun dialogue, Christian! The personalities of your characters really come through. Great job! :-)

    2. This is fantastic! Great examples!

  3. Fantastic, Jill. You do such a great job breaking these bits down and showing us what the author was thinking. Hermione and Jo absolutely jump off the page.