Good characterization is an enigma: it happens in the minutia, with the details we choose for our cast members, but it also happens on the macro level, with how we put those details together. I’d like to share two techniques today for building compelling and substantial characters that will breathe new life into your story. Let’s begin with the first one.
Contrast: the quality that makes characters visible
One of the most important things about character is opposition. Characters must be in opposition to each other, their story, and themselves.
Say we’ve got a pair of charming ducks. We can’t just leave them a pair of charming ducks. They’ve got to contrast each other. They’ve got to exemplify, somehow, the fundamental differences between all human beings. So we want to set up a dichotomy between these two characters, which of course turns out to be the root of all their ills.
They’re super-compatible. They both love art and frisbee and cats. They love life. They love each other. All’s well in their world.
But there’s an abyss between them—the abyss that will tear them apart.
Say when she was young she accidentally shot her brother while hunting and now has terrible recurring dreams. Say he’s an LPN and works in the ER. This contrast between their characters can bring about their worst nightmare when he’s in the ER one night and a gunshot victim rises unexpectedly from the gurney and pulls a pistol from their belt, and she’s the only person who can drag him to safety and follow his gasped instructions for digging out the bullet. . .
He’s secretly gay. And she’s secretly lesbian. But they need a child. (Why? Who knows? Maybe they’re aristocrats in need of an heir, like Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson.) The fact that they’re terrified of revealing their secrets to anyone—especially each other—means their efforts to live up to the pressure result in either great comedy or great tragedy. . .
They’re not really a couple. But they must pretendto be a couple for very urgent reasons. Maybe they’re in a Witness Protection Program. And it turns out that one of them isn’t really a witness, which is, naturally, the contrast between them. And this means the other isn’t really protected. . .
Do you see how the contrast between characters is the tension that makes our story a great big paintball aimed right at the reader’s head?
Now let’s try the second technique by condensing some of these characters.
Condensation: giving the reader someone to follow
Say the woman who accidentally shot her brother originally had two sisters. We have a social climber, a tomboy, and Mommy’s Little Girl. We have someone who’ll knock others down to get her way, a rather moody black sheep, and someone with a (slightly-strained) smile for every season. We have all of these qualities we really want to explore, and we need someone to paste them onto.
What if we eliminate the sisters? What if we give all those characteristicsto the same character?
Or maybe the homosexual man originally had a straight best friend with all the qualities we didn’t know how to give to our effeminate gay blade. The best friend is big, muscular, athletic, and has a way with the ladies. We’ve made our gay blade thin, willowy, soft-voiced, and limp-wristed.
What happens if we combine the two? Make the gay man big, willowy, muscular, soft-voiced, supremely athletic, with a charming way with the ladies to hide his passion for their brothers and boyfriends? The ladies don’t mind his limp wrist. They think he’s being sophisticated.
And the lesbian woman—maybe she originally was bluff and hearty, with a fondness for fresh air and dogs and comfortable shoes. And maybe the social-climber sister was intensely competitive, while the smiley sister was a fainting lily who spent a lot of time on her chaise longue sipping absinthe and fluttering her eyelashes at the big charming dude with muscles.
What if we made the lesbian a delicate flower with a fondness for fresh air and dogs and comfortable shoes. Her intense competitiveness makes her constantly over-do the bluff and have to retreat to her chaise lounge while her husband with the limp wrist brings her absinthe. She flutters her eyelashes at him hoping against hope that he hasn’t seen her rolling in the hay with the neighbor’s governess.
And after they’ve survived the shoot-out in the ER, he has to testify against the perpetrator, who can identify him. So he’s put into a Witness Protection Program and given a fake wife, with whom our heroine falls in love. . .
Do you see how contrasting and condensing characters brings them vividly alive? It forces us to climb over our unconscious clichés and create unique people—all while keeping the story focused on their conflicted needs that get them from hook, through development, to climax.
And it makes the material so much more substantial, resulting in writing that’s significantly more compelling.
Victoria has been a professional writer and editor for over thirty years. She is the author of the Art & Craft of Writing series and offers email subscribers a free copy of Art & Craft of Writing: Favorite Advice for Writers. Catch up with Victoria on twitter or visit her website for more information on her editing services.
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Esosa Kolawole says
Victoria, this post is great. Thanks
Victoria Mixon says
You’re welcome, Esosa!
I hope it helps with your manuscript.
Traci Kenworth says
Victoria Mixon says
Thank you, Traci!
Ingmar Albizu says
Conflict and tension will always drive the narrative but we need rounded and complex characters to represent those emotions.
This post was both, a lesson in plotting and character creation.
Excellent post, Victoria. I learned so much.
Victoria Mixon says
I’m so glad, Ingmar!
Plot grows out of character. When we know the basic conflict inside the main character, then we can develop from this their inescapable plot.
What is the hardest possible choice they could be forced to make. What is their worst nightmare?
That’s their story!
Victoria Marie Lees says
I never thought about characters this way, Victoria. Thank you! All best to you.
Victoria Mixon says
I do a lot of work with clients condensing their characters. Most debut authors write anywhere from 20 to 50 characters into one novel. We whittle those down to 10. The resulting characters are so much more intriguing!
Then, of course, we make sure they contrast with each other as much as humanly possible. That makes them memorable.