Cheat-sheet to characterization

Characters, whether the novel itself is character or plot driven, are a book’s best assets. Through them, we see the story, the setting, the conflicts, the tragedies and the triumphs. Toned down to props or larger than life, characterization is crucial to any work of fiction.

There are many ways to draw effective characters. These are simply the most basic points.

1: Dialogue. Internal, external, dialogue is tied for the most important part of creating a character. Giving a character his own voice, a distinct, easily recognizable voice, is crucial. For example, same gist, worded differently:

“I didn’t do nothing! It was Jaybird what did it!”


“I did no such thing, for pity’s sake. It must have been your no-account cousin, Jay.”

You get quite a different image for each, no? Simply by the way they speak.

2: Tied in with dialogue is how your character responds to situations. Is she given to fight? Or flight? Does your character speak out? Or speak when spoken to? Is he a clown in large gatherings, yet quiet in small groups? How a character behaves is as important as how a character speaks.

3: What is your character’s story? Character needs to grow out of a sense of place. Setting plays a huge role in Oliver Twist’s character. There are plenty of wretched orphans in literature, but where Oliver comes from creates who he is. Where do your characters come from? Rich or poor? Loved or abandoned? City or country? Knowing these things will give you insight to his dreams, her fears, and how they came to be dreams and fears. Your character’s story will tell you how she will react to the plot you throw at her.

4: Names. What you name your character will set a tone your reader may never be aware is being set. Does the name have a short sound? A hard sound? A long, luxurious sound? Does this sound work to cement your character’s traits, or contradict? For example: Giladriel is lovely, lyrical, cultured. The sound of her name fits her character. Frodo is a Hobbit–sturdy, practical, short and to the point. Yup, fits the name. But what if the character of Giladriel was instead called, Gertrude? And what if Frodo Baggins was Beauregard Gardersmythe? See what I mean? Whether you name your characters appropriately, ironically, purposely contradictive, even invisibly, know why you’ve named your character as you have. You will know more about your character, and be better able to show that to the reader.

5: Description (IMO, the least important part of characterization.) We need a few details of what the character looks like–blond, short, stocky, a wonky eye. Unless their physical appearance lends something to the story, keep them as nondescript as possible. Captain Hook’s hook is part of the story, part of his character, but the exact shade of his eyes really isn’t.

Each one of these simple steps will lead you into another, more subtle aspect of characterization. Just remember–writers, can never know too much about their character; a reader can. As much as you love knowing that your character got her first kiss after rolling down a hill with her best friend, if it doesn’t pertain to the plot, your reader isn’t going to miss it.


Filed under Writing is Life

13 responses to “Cheat-sheet to characterization

  1. Lise-Marie

    Finding characters names has always been a challenge for me….so my solution? Think of a number between 1 and 26, figure out what letter that is and that is the first letter of a characters name. A phone book helps me with last names.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Lise…I love that method! I usually go through the alphabet, trying to figure out what letter I haven’t used it a while. Yours way is much better! Thanks. And thanks for stopping by!


  2. I think names are important too and I love naming my characters. Usually I try to have different ethnic names an can find lots of good names and their meanings on Google. The meaning is important to me. I love dialogue, too. I have a character or two, who are brief but important and I’m trying to give on an English accent and one a Southern accent. It’s been challenging, the internet has helped, but it would be a good workshop for someone to do, hint, hint 😉


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Cheeky monkey! 😉
      I love naming characters, and the meanings do carry weight, even if the reader never actually realizes it. Names have power! Just ask Rumplestilskein.

      Accents are tricky. There is a “secret” to it, though. One tick, that’s all you give them. The reader’s brain will fill in the rest. Over-doing an accent is the surest way to get the eye-roll whenever that character comes on the page. If the accent is southern, maybe choose “y’all” as the clarifier. If it’s Scottish, maybe use din’na rather than did not, or ye rather than you (but then make sure it’s for all the n’t contractions, or forms of you.) Australian, use mate. General British, use easily recognizable Brit jargon. Keep in mind, there are as many British accents as there are American. Frex–the South London v in place of th. Their “bruv” (short for bruvva, which is actually, brother) is now commonly used all over the UK.

      Hmmm…maybe I SHOULD do this workshop!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Meaning is absolutely important to me in naming characters as well. I definitely invest some time in this. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Eilzabeth Young

    I was thinking the same thing, that you should do a workshop or some type of teaching…..
    As for description being the least important, I agree. I always create an image in my head of what the character looks like regardless of how the author tells me he/she looks.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Hey, Elizabeth!
      I actually have done a couple of writing workshops, and I do them periodically for my writing group. In fact, I feel one coming on! I love to teach.


  4. As you may have gathered from the emails, we will probably have an opening for a workshop in October. Just sayin’……


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Haha! Ah, but unfortunately, I am one of those who can’t come in October, so that doesn’t work. I will do one though, whenever you need someone to fill a slot. Characterization, including accents! 🙂


  5. Love talking technical, Terri! May I add that gesture is another telling piece of a character, and probably among the most difficult to write. What a character does with her hands or her facial expressions while talking or even thinking can reveal a lot about who she is.


  6. Great post, Terri! Like Renee said, I think gestures are important too. Also a character’s use of language (not necessarily accents) could reveal much about them as well (i.e. education, slang, grammar, etc). So many options to choose from. 😉


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