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On Character In Novels: Part 1, by Robyn Bavati

The first book I ever wrote was a fast-paced, plot-based fantasy novel that was rejected primarily because the hero had no personality. Aware of this deficiency, I rationalised that I had deliberately made him an ‘everyboy’. I thought that if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him. I clung to this rationalisation because the truth was, I didn’t know how to develop his character.

Now, more than twenty-five years later, what I know about character and character development may be summed up in five basic principles:

1)      There is a difference between character and characterisation, and both are required.

2)      Character is best revealed through action.

3)      You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4)      Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5)      In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

This post will address the first of these principles.

In any novel, there is a need for both character and characterisation, and novice writers sometimes confuse the two, thinking that characterisation alone will suffice.

Characterisation is the character’s outward appearance – physical attributes such as height, build, hair colour or complexion and approximate age, as well as obvious idiosyncrasies such as a lisp or twitch. Character, on the other hand, deals with the inner workings of the heart and mind, and encompasses thoughts and feelings, attitudes and beliefs, sensations and moods, as well as personal attributes – shy or confident, modest or boastful, friendly or distant, mean or kind.

An old, grey-haired man with a limp; a young blonde woman wearing glasses; a skinny boy with a prominent scar on his cheek; a plump girl with curly red hair, pale skin and freckles – all these are examples of characterisation. They paint a picture but provide no real insight.

While distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies (characterisation) make characters more relatable and allow the reader to form a mental picture of the character, it’s the character’s deep and recognisable emotions that enable readers to identify and experience their journey.

Common mistakes in characterisation generally include:
1) describing the character in too much detail, or
2) describing the character too late in the novel.

Since readers often like to form a picture of the character in their heads, it’s best to provide just a few salient details. Paradoxically, too lengthy and detailed a description can actually confuse readers and interfere with the process of forming their own vision of the character.

Similarly, characterisation should occur when the character is first introduced – or very soon after. If a character is introduced on page 3, it won’t do to reveal only on page 53 that she’s a blonde – the reader may have imagined her a brunette for the past 50 pages.

While characterisation remains constant (the sixty-year-old man with a limp doesn’t change into a ten-year-old girl), characters change over time – the cowardly boy becomes courageous, the miserly old man learns to be generous, the shy but lonely widow overcomes her inhibitions and makes some friends. But more about that in later posts…

In the meantime, to fully internalise the difference between character and characterisation, here’s an exercise you might like to try: Divide a page into two columns. In one, list all the physical attributes and characteristics you could include under the heading Characterisation. In the other, list all the qualities, sensations, moods and emotions you could list under Character.


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Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover    

Writing Novels in Australia

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is really useful. Thank you for sharing. I was just wondering about how much description of a character is necessary. I remember (although I could be wrong) that at school we were encouraged to write really detailed description, every detail of how a character looked. Now, when I read (and in my own writing) I notice that characterisation is limited to a few points. Is that just my imagination?

    April 28, 2015

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