Characterization Tips – What to Avoid, Where to Focus


This post is focused on a very important, if not the most important, aspect of your writers, your characters. Readers become invested in characters. They learn to love and/or hate characters. They sympathize and/or empathize with their flaws, quirks and events that shape them. Character development is both essential and difficult.

In this post, I hope to pull together some useful tips that I have tried to follow in my own writing or have learned from those that are respected and successful in the craft.

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  • Be consistent with what you call your characters – If you’re character’s name is John Doe, stick with calling him John or Mr. Doe or Johnny. But don’t alternate or you will confuse your readers. I actually broke this rule in my first book, Frankly Speakingand in it’s subsequent related books, I have a character named Clifford Jones, III. He is an attorney, hacker, financial adviser and surf shop owner. His friends call him “Jonesy”, but he doesn’t let just anyone call him that. This means that, in dialogue where he is first meeting a character, they call him “Mr. Jones” until they earn enough of his trust, if ever, to call him “Jonesy”. It’s a minor bending of this principle and I’m good with it.
  • Give your characters names with subtle meaning – If everyone in your book is named Mr. Smith or Mr. Doe, the reader may take this as a sign of bland writing. Of course, the other extreme is giving your characters ridiculous names. If your hero is named Stud Steelmucscle or something like that, your readers may not take you seriously. Of course, both of these rules have been broken. In the right context, that is perfectly fine. In my detective series, I gave my main character the name, Frank Rozzani. Rozzani is a name that is close to my own last name and fits in my ethnicity which allowed me to explore familiar territory in my storytelling. The name ‘Frank ‘ has become a double-edged sword as I have used it in the titles of the first five books: Frankly SpeakingLet Me Be FrankFrank IncensedFrankly, My Dear and Frank ImmersedHopefully, I have not painted myself in a corner. I have at least 5-8 more ‘Frank’ titles in reserve. I just have to be story not to write the story to fit the title.

“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.”
― Joss Whedon

  • Who the characters are – Some books go charging into action without establishing who the character is or why they’re taking the actions being described. This is a perfectly fine way to immerse your reader into a story, but don’t string them along for a long time without giving them little tidbits of information. You will lose them if your character seems reckless without cause.
  • Stereotypes or stock characters – The terrorist of a certain ethnicity, the evil genius, the crusty old retired policeman; do they sound familiar? They should. They are often overused in what we read. Readers might think your story copying  something they’ve read previously. That’s not to say that you can’t use some aspects of these characters, just don’t load your story with them.
  • Too many characters – Some authors can pull this off. Read The Stand by Stephen King or The Lord of the Rings trilogy and you will have more characters than you can shake a stick at. These are exceptions. Too many characters means that you may not be developing them fully. You can try combining multiple characters or eliminating one or two. Not even Tom Bombadil made the movies.
  • Extraneous characters – I know I’ve been guilty of introducing a character and then never using them again for the rest of the book. My editor will rip them out and remind me that they are not necessary. I sometimes have people ask me to write them into a book. In one instance I wrote someone into the book as the person in charge of conducting body cavity searches. I don’t get that request much any more.

This post told you about some of the problems of characterization. How do we fix them? I’m deferring this to another post because I want to hear your ideas on this topic. I certainly don’t know everything or even much of anything. Let’s share our experiences.

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45 thoughts on “Characterization Tips – What to Avoid, Where to Focus

  1. This is good advice,Don. I’ve also found that subtle distinctions among characters can make them easier for people to distinguish. Even if the characters are twins, there are ways to make each one unique, so that readers can see them as believable, fleshed-out people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your last tip made me laugh. You made them a cavity-searcher? That’s hilarious. Consider this my request that you never put me in your works. I shudder to think what horrors you’d devise.

    Also, with respect to your last point, I’ve often suggested writers combine their extraneous characters into one secondary character. If it’s possible, they become easier to keep track of and might elevate themselves in the story. They may become so well-liked or important that they warrant a story of their own down the road.

    Great suggestions, Don.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So much good advice here.
    I tend to pile in with characters most of them in support and minor roles because the central characters are caught in busy chaotic situations . With Fantasy you can create very individualistic names which hopefully helps the reader. No bad reviews yet (of course havin g poor sales helps there!)
    Love Stud Steelmuscle….the name may not arise but how many times have we encountered a central character who might as well have been named thus! And in commercially successful books! (I feel a silly parody coming on there)
    Anyway, valuable post, has to be reblogged!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think I’m on the verge of breaking that rule with one of my characters. Pastor Robert Morgan and Will Diaz have known each other since the 1st grade. All during the first book, Will calls him Pastor Morgan, saying that he looked at it the same way he looked at his Captain from 1st MPs. In teh civilian world, before the Army, they knew each other as Scott and Will. But when Captain Price dusted off his commission and went full time Army, and Will enlisted, that lofted Scott into Officer country. Will ceased to call him by his first name even though they were still friends as a sign of respect for his rank. He feels the same way about Pastor Morgan. In Book two I have a scene where Will explains he has to respect the title and position. After all, his friend, Pastor Morgan worked for it and was appointed into the role. Pastor Morgan says “Fine, I’ll start referring to you as Detective Diaz then.” So finally Will joins the Parthenon of the people who call him by his first name. He tends to vacillate between the first name and title. I’m not sure how well that’s going to work out.

    Like

  5. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  6. I always look up name meanings, both first name and surname, regardless of how the character will be called in the book. In the script for the movie Old Blood, I named an important character Barolas Qadan, because he’s Mongolian. Very few people will get the reference, but I’ve identified him as a relative of Ghengis Khan. Because of the way names work in that culture, he is just called Qadan and the family designator is only mentioned once.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. For me the focus is the number of characters I use. My magic number seems to be four. Anything more than that and I struggle.

    The readers want to get to know these people and it’s up to us to make sure that happens.

    Excellent stuff here. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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