The Writing Process, Part III: Characterization
I've been asked many times over the years for various bits of writing advice, much of which I have covered in my video series, Olivie Blake is Not Writing, and on Tumblr under the tag writing advisements. In an attempt to organize these various posts and provide a central location for these topics, this will be a series of blog posts on various writing subjects.
In this series of writing posts, we're talking about the craft of writing fiction. In Part I: Getting Started, we talked about pre-writing, outlines, and research. In Part II: Drafting, we talked about to taking the process from the moment you start putting words down on the page to the moment your story is completed. This portion of my craft series is less about the sequence of steps involved in writing, but rather the literary device I get the most questions about: characterization.
I approach characterization as the foundation of everything in any story, even though it's more like one point of an equilateral triangle. Characterization determines everything that happens in the plot, but it is also determined by the context of setting. Sometimes people ask me which comes first—plot, setting, or characters—and it's hard to give an answer because each aspect is so dependent on the others. That being said, I think the most flawed version of any book is one with weak characterization, so this is where I place most of my emphasis while writing.
A lot of this discussion will be more theoretical (how to view characterization) vs. instructional (how to write characterization—a fairly impossible question that varies from work to work). I'm not a big believer in prescriptive craft advice, so this is just how I approach the process of character creation and how it fits into the process of writing fiction. Whether it is effective for you to conceptualize as I do is for you to determine, but if you're concerned that characterization is a weakness in your own writing—if your CPs or readers regularly ask you what a character is thinking or feeling, or if they often suggest that some action or deed by your characters feels inconsistent—it may help to hear from someone who prioritizes it above all else. (Me.)
What is characterization?
In the most basic terms, characterization is like fictional psychology: not just the character's background and agenda, but also their motivations, fears, weaknesses, strengths... everything that makes them tick. Usually these qualities feed into each other—the choices a person makes are always rooted in what they value, and what they value comes from who they are. I personally take a very great interest in psychology, perhaps due to my own mental illness. I take a cognitive behavioral approach to stabilizing my own mental health, which means that for better or worse, I think a lot about why people behave the way they do, usually with the aim of targeted problem-solving. Human behavior is endlessly interesting to me, so my interest in characterization reflects that.
One of the most important parts of designing a character is establishing an anchor for consistency: the root of who they are, how they think, what they love. Characters grow and change throughout the narrative, but there is something at the core of who they are that must always remain predictable, believable, and consistent. One of the easiest errors for an author to make—likewise, one of the most unforgivable complaints from the audience—is a character whose behavior in the plot undermines a critical detail of how they were crafted. A competent character who makes an incompetent choice, for example. If a trope or plot device is going to fail, it's usually an inconsistent character who contains the flaw.
How does setting impact characterization?
I'm going to say this as loudly as possible: One of the best methods of learning characterization is writing fan fiction, because while all stories are about the same set of characters, they are likely to take place with massive plot and setting divergences known as AUs, or alternate universes. Everyone who reads fanfic comes because they love (or love to hate) a set of known characters, so even if the setting changes, the core of who that character is must remain true. A character is "in character" if they still make the same choices they would in canon, only this is now impacted by new details determined by the new setting.
Although fanfic rewards an author's ability to keep each character fundamentally the same while also drastically altering their environment, it's functionally impossible for a person to be exactly the same under all conditions and circumstances. Wherever you stand on the nature vs. nurture debate, there's no denying that we are all built on a combination of who we are and what we've experienced. Make a poor character rich and you change their motivations. Take away a beloved parent's influence or remove the motivation of a hated rival and you have an entirely different person on your hands. It matters whether your character is an only child or the middle of twelve. What is their role in the society you've chosen to portray? Are there cultural factors impacting their decisions? Which aspects of their moral code are determined by their faith, or lack thereof? The person they become is determined by the setting you choose for them to be born into, so whether you start with setting or characterization, one must always reinforce the other.
How does characterization impact plot?
Everyone has their approach to writing, but plot comes last for me sequentially in terms of crafting a narrative. When I start writing, I typically have an idea of the inciting premise and my suspicions on how things might end, but no hard and fast details on how the ending comes about. This is because I think characters feel most real when they are the ones determining the sequence of events. My method of avoiding inconsistency in characterization is to always put character authenticity ahead of any predetermined plot demands.
I suppose in theoretical terms, I've got a very deist approach to the craft of fiction: I put the characters of my making on a stage of my making and see how things play out without my active interference. Again, it's probably the fanfic writer in me, but if you feel burdened or challenged by characterization, imagine there are no set outcomes. Run the plot in your head like a series of hypothetical simulations; change something even slightly and it may come out different every time. How do you know when you've chosen the best plot? When you've chosen the most compelling versions of your characters.
One thing I frequently use in my own work are ensemble casts, where the driving force of the plot lives in the space between characters. It lives in the tension, which can be driven by vengeance or betrayal or by love, romantic or platonic. It lives in the shared motivations or reluctant alliances, forced partnerships or fake relationships or bonds forged from birth. Perhaps the most interesting thing about being human is never what we do or accomplish, but how we relate to others—how others drive us, who we fight for and fight against and who we love; how we coexist. I consider this to be true in fiction as well, and so these are the first questions I answer for myself when I'm speculating about how any given plot may turn out.
How do you choose which characters to include?
When it comes to characters, I stick to the dramatic principle of Chekhov's gun: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." This is not a matter of foreshadowing, but of necessity vs. irrelevancy. If a character is included in a manuscript I'm writing, they must have an impact on either the plot itself or one of the character arcs that drives the plot. One way or another, each character is a gun that must, at some point, go off.
How you determine which characters are necessary to your story depends greatly on the purpose of the work. I know I'm just going in circles here, but nothing is ever purely about plot, or about characters, or about setting. Everything contributes to your themes—aka your purpose in sitting down to write something—which is then infused into (you guessed it) the setting, characters, and plot. At its best, fiction has a holistic quality where nothing feels out of place.
How do you write unlikable characters?
There's a pretty undeniable set of stigmas lurking beneath the surface of the word "unlikable." I don't think it's possible to ignore that as a weaponized term of criticism, "unlikable" often reflects a marginalized experience that is different from the reader's own. For purposes of this discussion, let's say that "unlikable" means something less biased: a character who has a controversial morality or whose main qualities are generally less virtuous. In female characters, these tend to be things like arrogance, ambition, selfishness. In male characters it is more likely to be vulnerability or softness. Either way, the point is that not every character must be designed to be liked. Fiction is, at its root, a method of telling the truth, of reflecting on the world both as it is and as it could be. Very few people, if any, are universally likable. Characters will not be either.
You've probably guessed this by now, but I'll say it anyway: I don't think it's necessary to aim for likable. Liking is always subjective, dependent on the experiences and biases of the reader, which are infinitely variable and impossible to predict. I prefer to aim for interesting. Your audience should want to know what this character will do next, good or bad. The choices and behaviors of this character should drive the plot forward in some way. They should reflect the complexity of your setting. They can and should feel like a person who exists in the world you've created. They are a creature of your story, and likewise, without them the story would (and should) collapse.
Writing for any audience means trying to craft someone the audience will want to root for, but if likability is your only goal, it's likely that their authenticity will suffer. I'll rip the band-aid off and tell you right now that someone, somewhere, will dislike your beloved, misunderstood character. Inevitable as death and taxes: one star reviews. Ultimately, though, there has to be some bravery to creativity, and that includes coming to terms with the fact that you cannot create for everyone. There's no point writing for the audience who will not share your values, interests, or opinions—you will always fail. So write characters whose conflicts feel real to you, and more often than not, it will be enough.
Strong female casts, not strong female characters
As an author who is also noisily a feminist, one question I get a lot is how to write strong female characters who are not Strong Female Characters™, aka a female character designed with masculine qualities or to appeal to a male audience: handy with a sword, for example, but still sexually desirable within the usual gender-driven constraints. This is a simple answer preceded by a long-winded explanation, so bear with me.
Let's start with a common variant of the Strong Female Character™: the Not Like Other Girls. There's some pervasive idea that one woman prevails because she is a specific subset of qualities. As I once mentioned in a previous S.P.E.L.L. discussion of Jane Eyre, Brontë uses Jane’s narrative to highlight how Jane is clever, devoted, headstrong, whereas other girls are not. In modern YA romance (among other contemporary genres) the Not Like Other Girls archetype often prevails because she has offbeat interests, quirky opinions, she doesn’t care how she looks.... but, like the Strong Female Character™, she is still desirable to men.
Of course, you do not win someone’s affection by possessing a list of qualities that other women don’t have. That’s issue number one. Now add in the fallacy of scarcity, aka that you are always competing with other women and therefore you must be different and better in order to win. What does this do in reality? It assigns more or less value to the way in which you are a woman. But consider this: why should caring about your looks be a sign of stupidity or vapidness when there are entire industries devoted to making women—and especially teen girls—feel ugly or fat or generally imperfect? On the whole, young women are targeted by an economy that monetizes self-hatred, amplified for POC women who are underrepresented and criticized for their otherness. Adding in the internal misogyny of “I am better than this girl because my desirability meets an accepted standard for behavior and hers does not” is not helping us, so beware how you reward your female heroes and punish your female villains. (Besides, the Not Like Other Girls is usually told she’s beautiful, isn’t she? So it undermines the whole thing, and creates an even more impossible standard for perfection: i.e., that you should be perfect without trying.)
The Not Like Other Girls is also usually a Cool Girl, aka someone who does not have emotional needs; another hallmark of the Strong Female Character™. The Cool Girl reinforces that in order to be a woman worthy of being loved, you must require as little as possible. Partially as a result of male emotional detachment (toxic masculinity being bad for everyone involved), women learn that reluctance or ambivalence to make demands is a desirable quality; i.e., that others will want us more if we need them less, and that way, we are rewarded for starving. We are conditioned over and over—particularly as teenage girls—to need less, demand less, expect less. I say this as a lover and writer of romance, but much of the most derivative work in the genre is built on the idea a man will one day come along and save us; not from a tower (we're Strong Female Characters™ who save ourselves now!) but from loneliness or desire.
Which leads me to my actual point: what we need are strong (read: inclusive) female casts, not derivative and misogyny-driven Strong Female Characters™. My argument is that yes, we should honor our female characters by expecting more from our authors—more truth, more sensitivity, more awareness—but expecting more from the female cast as a whole can manifest by expecting, in some senses, less from each individual female character. There is no universal woman, and thus, female characters should not all share the same prescribed strengths. They should also be allowed to have flaws, and to grow as they go. There shouldn’t be one girl who is so different from the others that only she can be the victor; this is in some senses expecting too much, and also implying all the fallacies above.
Why strong female casts? Because true diversity is about expressing reality; not that there should be an array of female personalities because different female personalities need to be provided, but because the world is already occupied by a wide variety of women who are deeply unique even while we are sharing the same universal human experience. The same argument goes for just about anything, gender (or nonbinary) experiences in addition to race, ethnicity, religion, culture, sexuality, etc., but is particularly relevant for this specific criticism.
Defending "imperfect" characters/perceived character flaws*
*In the following sections, I am using "white" not as a matter of regional origin or skin color, but as a sociocultural demographic characterized by longstanding institutional, political, and economic privilege.
In recent years, media criticism has led to the expectation that fiction cannot have any problems, which is absurd and counterproductive. It’s also extremely reductive; for example, when applied to the above Strong Female Character™, a woman still only has value if she’s strong in the “correct” way. I've mentioned in some of my Not Writing videos that there’s some kind of disconnect between the very good intentions behind the movement to empower female characters and the actual outcomes of media criticism, which make it so that any flaws in a marginalized fictional character are magnified for a misleading and perhaps even imagined stereotype of the entire group. The more you expect one work to represent an entire collective experience, the more likely that work will fail in its efforts at representation; likewise, the more you try to typify all of one group with a single character, the less effective that character will be.
The very reasonable request to see ourselves authentically in fiction has become a convoluted demand to see ourselves a certain way in fiction, where any character who does not reflect our personal experience is bad and wrong. Previously, the expectation was that white male stories were universal, whereas everything else was only for that specific group. There is an undeniable, ongoing conflation of "objective" and "white." In the lag between activism for inclusivity and the absence of true structural change, fiction is still expected to fit that quality of universal objectivity. It still has to please everyone, but now it features marginalized characters and storytelling, some of which may be unrecognizable to an unfamiliar audience. So, is the problem the push for diversity? Of course not! The problem is when you only have ONE movie about this topic or ONE book about this ethnicity, then of course it hasn’t done enough to exemplify an entire subject or culture. There has to be an entire oeuvre of marginalized work the way there is with white-dominated media, where no single film or book accurately represents the experience of being white—or being male, or being cisgender, or being straight.
By which I mean... sometimes, analysis of your "imperfect" character is unfair and biased. Sometimes it's just wrong. Not every criticism is adequately met with a defense, especially when it comes down to likability. While there are certainly scenarios where criticism is valid—when fiction furthers a harmful stereotype or does not adequately consult the marginalized experience intended to be represented—those problems are best solved by inclusivity at a high level: ideally, centering the involvement of someone whose experience those stories are meant to reflect. Structural problems and biases aside, if the criticism from a trusted CP is that your character doesn't adequately grow from their imperfections, they might be right. They might not. That's your concept to defend or accept; it is fixable if you have been inconsistent. Maybe you relied too much on a plot point that doesn't fit your characterization, in which case refer back to one of the above questions about how to know your characterization is working. Run the scenarios to see where you may have faltered. Does the root of your characterization call for the actions your plot prescribed?
Either way, it's worth remarking that this is one of those loaded pieces of criticism that is highly subjective. When it comes to your work, particularly in the event of any pre-emptive urgency to please your audience, all you can be is authentic. If you can't be authentic from a lived experience, be well-informed about that experience. And if you can't be informed... then it's not your story to tell, is it?
Writing "diverse" characters*
*In the following sections, I am using "white" not as a matter of regional origin or skin color, but as a sociocultural demographic characterized by longstanding institutional, political, and economic privilege.
In an obvious follow-up to the previous question, there's no correct answer to how you should write diversity. Even for cultural experts and activists much smarter and more informed than me, I'm not sure there's an answer that fits every size, so to speak. For me, I simply try to write the world as I experience it, and the world as I experience it is not straight, white, or male. In my world there are immigrant experiences, cultural divergences, a wide array of sexual preferences and gender identifications. My world has mental illness and neurodivergence. It is also filled with microaggressions as a result of being other, and therefore that's what I write.
That being said, my experience—however "diverse" a publisher may consider it—doesn't mean that I understand every experience. Optically speaking, I'm sufficiently white-passing and, regardless of my actual sexual orientation, a cisgender woman married to a cisgender man. Would it be fair for me to write stories that overlook the presence of Blackness or openly gay characters because I am neither? No. Would it be right for me to center the experience of being Black or openly gay in my story when I am neither? Also no. Those stories are not mine to tell, so even if I feel I have one, to presume that I am the only one capable of telling it is both egotistical and false. When it comes to centering a story on an experience I haven't lived, I know there is someone who can tell it better than I can. I should not delude myself otherwise and neither, I believe, should you.
The goal, in my opinion, is including the presence of other experiences and honoring their perspectives. It is not to co-opt an experience that belongs to someone else. Everyone is capable of telling their own story, and while we may want to tell stories that aren't necessarily ours—the best among us may even be capable of doing it well and skillfully, even truthfully—the reality is that the publishing and entertainment industries are so far behind that the bar for true inclusivity has yet to be met. So, if it's not your story to tell, wait in line. Most likely someone is trying to tell it, or has told it already and is being overlooked by an industry whose gatekeepers do not represent the proper spectrum of experiences.
That being said, is it better for your fiction to exist within a white-washed world to avoid encroaching on marginalized experiences? Depends. Is the world as you see it completely white? If so, perhaps that's a matter of privilege exceeding the issue of what fiction you're "allowed" to write. With regard to other races, genders, faiths, and identities, I do think it is better to include more experiences than to limit yourself to the view from a single lens. If you feel your story is enriched (not centered on, but enriched) by an experience you don't personally know, then do your research. Find someone whose experience confirms the truth in your fiction, and ultimately the old rule always applies: Know what you write.
I've discussed each of the above topics in greater detail in a variety of my videos (check the Not Writing index if you're curious about one particular subject), but in terms of establishing my views on characterization, it's no different from my philosophy on writing. The best fiction is a way of expressing some truth about being human, and the human element—the parts that are inherently familiar to us, even if the plot or setting are not—is paramount.
The more you honor your characterization, the more compelling your characters will be, and the stronger your story is as a cohesive, truth-telling whole.