Friday, January 8, 2010

What is Characterization?

This is a question that has often baffled me. And it's not a trivial question. If you and your potential editor don’t agree on what good characterization is, then the relationship ends before it begins with the manuscript in the discard pile.

I have my own ideas about characterization. I like to see emotional depth, what matters to the character, some idea of what their personality is like and how they might go about getting what they want or overcoming their problem, all blended with the right amount of backstory. All this is best revealed gradually through the actions of the character and the events of the plot.

But for me this stuff is ‘internal’.

For others good characterization is ‘external’. They like to see particular actions or mannerisms in a character that can be readily recognized – and are often repeated ad nauseum through the story. From Harry Potter think of Hermione Granger’s ‘bushy hair’ or Hagrid’s large bulk. It seems like every single time these characters appear there is a reference to the 'key characteristic'. If I read another dark fantasy character who can't be separated from their cigarette, I think I'll choke. If subtle enough, I guess it works as a subconscious cue.

One of the reasons I stopped reading the Wheel of Time series was I got so sick of this. How many times can Nynaeve al’Meara pull her damn braid? Especially when nothing else was happening except a self-perpetuating word-mill of dialogue? I’d rather know more about what makes her tick.

I think a little bit of the external things can be an excellent part of the mix, but when this is supplied as the major component of characterization I start to get annoyed.

There is a lot in this though – it really appears to be a divide in the way writers approach the work (and how editors interpret it). Maybe its even deeper than that, maybe it’s a personality divide.

I was watching a local television program – the Tuesday Book Club – where various local literary luminaries wax lyrical about three or four books, each giving their considered opinion. Even these quite established and successful writers could not agree on this one. One of them was seriously bagging one of the books, criticizing what, in his opinion, was a very superficial characterization for the above reasons, while another could not give it higher praise in the same arena.

What’s going on? Please enlighten me!


Kate said...


I'm going to go out on a limb here and possibly offend a lot of people... From what I've seen, characterization by externals usually means that the person doing it doesn't care, or just flat doesn't understand people.

Which is not to say there isn't a valid reason to use an external characteristic to 'fix' a character, so long as there's a good internal balance in there too. I try to do this: how successful I am is another matter.

Just to take a couple of examples of the best characterization: Rincewind - skinny, straggly beard, ratty for externals, but the whole philosophy of cowardice are what makes him memorable.
Hermione Grainger - smart geek girl who wants desperately to fit in is the memorable part. The bushy hair is the external.
Hagrid - again, his...erm... larger than life personality is there, but the external is used to 'fix' it and create a mental image of him.

So ultimately... "Yes". Use both. Internal only can be difficult unless you're deeply in that person's POV. External only is shallow. Both... you get something approaching well rounded, if done well.

Scott said...

If you discount the 'external only' method of characterisation you are saying that there can be only one well drawn character in a first person novel...

I generally write what I call a third person distant POV. ie, some internal stuff comes through, but no where near as much as most third person. I try to get a lot of stuff across through body language, which I think is (or can be, if done well) a lot more subtle. Isn't that showing and not telling, after all?


Jonathan D. Beer said...


As someone who has taken the Turkey City Lexicon worryingly to heart, I join you in, if not condemning, then at least disliking Silly Hat Characterisation. I, like you, much prefer to see a character's, well, character, as the story progresses. I think visual cues are necessary, don't get me wrong, but I think the actions and words of a character as revealed by decent storytelling are much more interesting, and create more believable characters.

For me, this is somewhat like meeting new people in real life for the first time. The first impression, generally, is always made on a visual basis - if someone is tugging on her braid all the time, I'm going to notice it and fix that in my brain as one of her characteristics. But these are pushed aside, mostly, once one has spoken to this person and gotten to know her a bit better. Her beliefs, statements, her body language while talking, these make a far greater impression, and these are what I would remember if someone asked me about her.

The same, I think, can be applied to characters in books; the ones I remember and relate to and sympathise with are the ones who I have gotten to know, not the ones who have had a silly hat placed upon their head and an insatiable need to play the oboe after meals.

Great post, by the way, I was thinking about this myself in relation to my own writing. Its very easy to say I prefer internal characterisation, much harder to pull it off.

Anonymous said...

The balance of internal vs external characterization is going to depend on the POV.

If you're writing first person, everyone but the "I" must be shown from the outside, from the observations, conversations, and intuition of the POV character.

Don't mistake dialog tags for characterization. When I reread dialog that I've written fast, well, he nods, she nods, Joe, nods, Gus nods . . . bloody pack of bobble heads . . .

So you go back and get rid of half of them, and what's her face fools with her hair in five different ways, the other woman wrings her hands and fools with her skirts and the guys rub their chins, noses, pace, growl, shift their weight, lean back forward and sideways . . .

I really hate editing dialog. Giving each character a different OCD tic can make it easier. For the writer. The reader, well, maybe there really isn't anything wrong with the word "said" after all.

Kate said...

Okay, just quickly...

It looks like there's already different ideas of what "internal" and "external" mean.

Here's the definition I use - if a physical action shows what a character's internal dialog is doing, it's an internal characterization. Expressions, hand-wringing, tone of voice all land in this. For instance, did Rowling ever write anything from Hagrid's POV? No. That doesn't mean he hasn't been characterized internally.

Externals are outside-only cues, and best left for disposable characters like the third shopkeeper on the left. Someone's hair color, their height, etc are all externals.

So yes, Scott, you can use internal characterization of non POV characters in a first person story.

Matapam - I tend to ditch the "he thinged" altogether and just describe an action instead, like someone says something and the POV character observes he's going to wear the carpet through the way he's pacing.

WangZheng259 said...

Human brains are sophisticated pattern analysis engines. Communication involves doing actions or creating objects such that the pattern analysis appears to cause information to move from one mind to another.

Different brains are have different areas of pattern analysis that they are more 'effective' with. Some are very good at social pattern analysis and some are very poor at it. Successful writers need to have enough social pattern analysis and stored data about social interactions, people, and so forth to have enough understanding that their creations make sense to the pattern analysis of others.

I think that some of the differences in evaluation of characterization are related to matches or mismatches between the strengths and weaknesses of the reader's and the writer's social pattern analysis.

My social pattern analysis is rubbish at faces and body language. On the other hand, I am fairly good at analysing the literal meaning of what is said. Several times, in books I otherwise enjoyed, I have had a disconnect, because the character acts on information transfer I could not perceive, and would not have perceived in real life. Other times, in real life, I have gotten and retained information from a political speech that others did not, or did not remember. (This has left me somewhat more cynical about politicians and political analysts.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Stop angsting. The "character tags" are easy for MINOR characters, but too easy to overdue. I mean, how many times in a normal conversation do you find a man with a peg leg talking to a woman who flicks her blond hair, talking to...

HOWEVER if you know who your character is, in your head, it will come across.

One word of caution -- on something that held me back for YEARS -- resist the temptation to muddy the waters. While no villain is a villain in his own head, and while most people are mixed, you NEED to cue in people or whom to cheer for. NEED to. If your character is appropriately flawed, he/she must be clear cut and on the side of angels on the main issue of the novel.
why, you say? Because the alternative is gray goo.

The difference between knowing who to cheer for and not is the difference between Shakespeare (Heros and villains, both usually flawed and sometimes tragic) and Marlowe (everyone flawed, everyone unpleasant.)

Let us know when to throw our greasy cloaks in the air and whom to pelt with orange peels. The rest is... irrelevant.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I'm using internal and external as in or out of the character's head.

Inside the character's head, he especially notes the girl slip the hope diamond down her bodice, and sets out to "rescue" "her". Outside, you see the character risking his life against the hordes of Evil to sweep the girl to safety, kiss her, grab the diamond and run.

If you're first person, then you have to go with the first method. Third, and you can play around with your reader's emotions a bit more.

Descriptions are a part of characterizations, but relatively minor. Sometimes tough to get in there without telling instead of showing. And sometimes being a bit vague can let the reader fill in with "just like me."

Perhaps one of the more technical types could correct my usage? My formal English training is minimal. I simply read well enough to pass most tests without needing to ever learn what those terms meant.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I am completely with you on this. The strange thing is that some readers and editors seems to love that external approach - even to the extent they will rave about it. Is that because they can get a handle on the character, but are uncomfortable with the deeper motivations?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Scott. Happy New Year!

I think you can draw multiple characters well in 1st person, through the observations and recollections of the main character and what is communicated through dialogue.

I try to use the observation of body language as well in 3rd person. I think that's good storytelling. For me its not so much the use of the external per se, but whether this is being used to convey something or whether its an end in itself.

For example if we see a paticular mannerism in a character that tells us nothing except that its that character as apposed to a nervous tick that tells us he is terrified by what is going on. The first only tells us that that character is in the story, the second gives us information about what is going on inside the character and may work with other cues to give a real insight.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jonathan. I like your descripion of the external approach - Silly Hat Characterisation.

Nice take on how the nature of the characterisation changes as you get to know the character. That's a nice ideas, perhaps seeding some of those externals up front but then quickly phasing them out or toning them down.

So, even if someone is playing the oboe after dinner you are much more focused on what they said earlier and what that means, or the comments they make when they stop for a drink of water (and you take out the ear plugs :))

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Absolutely. I think the use of 'said' can't be recommended enough in dialogue, the little sucker just becomes invisible.

My kids got given a sheet at school with all the words you could use instead of 'said' -- applauded, exclaimed etc. I thought to myself - 'There is ten years of bad writing habits right there!'

The most effective thing to do - and the hardest - is to make the actual dialogue individual to the character. There is no way you can make it a 100% differentiation, but you can make one short and brutish, the next overwordy etc.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Yep. I agree. External observation can definitely be used to bring out internal thoughts and feelings in a character. That is good storytelling.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, WangZheng. I think you have hit the nail on the head there. Your analysis has given me some food for thought - I must look deeper at what the writers are doing that I classify as 'external' in characterisation and see exactly what might be being picked up - and vice versa - I need to see what is being potentially missed on the other side. The writers job is to communicate after all, and in a certain sense the audience is always right.

I think there is a spectrum. If there are both external and internal approaches, then some people will respond better with the balance tilted to one direct, some with the balance tilted the other way.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. As someone who loves heroic fiction, I could not agree more. You need the complexity in the characters, but you need to be left in no uncertain terms who the bad guys are.

Now, where did I leave my greasy coat. . .

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. Isn't writing such a complex business?

I was just reflecting reading your latest reply that we can't even discuss it without having to clarify the definitions of the terms we use to discuss it!

By the external I meant external actions or descriptions. These could be just an action or 'tag' or could be a vehicle to essential give information on the internals of the character.

I think it is impossible to write without some telling. It would just be impossible to convey everything as a 'show' (and would take too damn long!)

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah. Some telling is necessary for pacing and what not. But if you do too much, what you have at the end is a really long outline, not a story. Which isn't a bad spot to find oneself, actually. I rather like going back and turning an explanation into a rip roaring argument.

Scott said...


By that definition I agree with you. I just don't really agree with the definition. :)

For me, internal is something that other characters can't see-- eg telling us what a character is thinking.

In the end, we agree though, so that's okay.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I read something quite neat in Stephen King's On Writing - 'Write first with the door closed then with the door open.' i.e. first just write if for yourself, then throw open the doors and let the critiquers and editors in and re-work so it makes the most sense to others. I've always like that.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


That's the 'Save the Cat' principle, used by screen writers.

Early one have your hero/heroine do something that establishes sympathy with the audience so they know who to cheer for.

I agree absolutely.

But I do enjoy a conflicted character and I like to make my characters suffer!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Chris.

Lots of interesting discussion.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. So you make your characters suffer, eh?

And you seemed like such a nice person! Ahh, just kidding.