Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 7, 2023

Characterization: One of the Most Vital Writing Skills

by Stefan Emunds

Personality word cloud
Personality word cloud collage, social concept background

This is the fifth article of the article series The Yin and Yang Relationship Between Psychology and StorytellingThe first article is about reader investment and reader engagement. In the second article, we covered how to create story experiences that feel real to life. The third article shows how to tap into your readers' subconsciousness and engage them in your story. The fourth article dives into characters’ goals, motivations, wants, needs, and objects of desires.

This article covers psychological engineering, aka characterization.

Why Do Writers Need to Know Psychology?

Writers need to know psychology for four main reasons:

  • Know how readers think and feel and use that knowledge to engage them.
  • Understand the psychology of experiencing so they can create story experiences that have a real-to-life feel.
  • Design characters with plausible traits, flaws, talents, motivations, etc.
  • Know themselves — why they write, what they really want to write about, and how to get out of their own way.

The Eight Crafts of Writing

This article is written with the eight writing crafts in mind. The eight writing crafts are:

  • Big Idea (aka theme)
  • Genre
  • Narrative
  • Story Outline (aka plotting)
  • Characterization
  • World Building
  • Scene Structure
  • Prose (aka line-by-line writing)

Note: To avoid confusing readers, the author of these articles avoided the alternation of she and her and he and him. Instead, he uses the nonexclusive she and her to mean writer and reader.

Psychological Engineering, aka Characterization

Psychologists are analysts, writers are psychological engineers. They use psychology to engineer story characters.

Characterization is complex. Among other things, writers need to know how to:

  • Engineer characters
  • Design character arcs
  • Weave sympathy and empathy
  • Set up character conflict
  • Show and reveal character
  • Reveal backstory

This article covers character engineering. The Eight Crafts of Writing recommends engineering characters in four steps:

  1. Determine your characters’ story outline profile (prior to writing the first draft)
  2. Give the character a simple, one-dimensional profile (prior to writing the first draft) 
  3. Engineer your characters’ psychological profile (aka deep characterization)
  4. Dress your characters with superficial attributes

How to Give Your Characters a Story Outline Profile

Many writers discover their characters while they write about them and they have no character profiles to begin with. This poses a challenge, since characters need to fit into the roles they play in the story. Discovering a character randomly may mess up the plot.

The solution: Create a story role profile for important characters prior to writing your first draft. It helps to have a cheat sheet for each character, something like: 

  1. State the character’s story outline role, e.g., protagonist.
  2. Show the genre role, e.g., victim in a crime story.
  3. State the subplot role, e.g., lover.
  4. State how the character relates to the story’s adversity? Is she a protagonistic or antagonistic agent or does she shapeshift?

As you can see, role profiling can already give you some characterization ideas. For instance, a victim needs to have a weakness, otherwise, the antagonist won’t be able to victimize her. What could that weakness be? If the character is a love-interest, she needs to be lovable somehow. In which way is she lovable?

What Makes the Character Tick?

To complete the story role profiling, you still need to define what makes the character tick. You can do that by answering the following three questions:

  1. What is the character’s primary motivation? Is it fame, fortune, romance, or partying?
  2. What is the character’s goal before and after the inciting incident?
  3. What is the character’s need? The need determines the character’s subtext.

These three characteristics belong to the story outline too, and they should support the plot. The character’s motivation, goals, and need can give you a good inkling what kind of person she is. What about turning that into a one dimensional character profile before you write your first draft?

Define a Simple, One-dimensional, Psychological Profile Prior to Writing Your First Draft

It helps to give story characters a simple, one-dimensional psychological profile before writing the first draft. This can kick-start the discovery of your characters without stifling your discovery of characters while writing.

An easy way of doing that is assigning one of the Big Five character traits to your characters.

The Big Five theory is a well-researched psychological theory. According to Wikipedia, the Big Five is a suggested taxonomy, or grouping, for personality traits, developed from the 1980s onward in psychological trait theory. The theory identified five factors by labels for the US English speaking population, typically referred to as:

  1. Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  2. Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  3. Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  4. Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
  5. Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

Now, you can assign a Big Five trait or a sub-trait to your characters and work with that until their deeper psyches reveal themselves to you.

Deep Characterization: Psychological Profiling

After your first draft, it is time for deep characterization. Deep characterization makes your characters more interesting, removes inconsistencies, and shows character instead of telling.

Add some of these:

  1. Pick a dominant trait, e.g., smart, lovely, serious, happy, or emotional. If you chose a Big Five trait, use that.
  2. Identify their worldview, e.g., Catholic, Hippy, or Rasta.
  3. A nickname
  4. An internal paradox, e.g., a righteous man with a rebellious streak
  5. A talent that fits the character’s role
  6. A flaw - decide what wound caused it and reveal that wound (backstory) in a key scene to make it memorable
  7. A goal and its opposite, i.e. the last thing she wants to do. You want to get her into a situation where she has to do exactly that.
  8. Define their first impression vs. true character. Example: A neurotic character who hides her anxieties behind a mask of arrogance. Reveal the character’s subtext in key moments to make them memorable.
  9. Props that embody characteristics, e.g., talismans, pets (John Wick’s dog), a piece of clothing (Indiana Jones' hat), or a unique weapon (Anton Chigurh’s captive bolt stunner in No Country for Old Men).
  10. Facial expressions - use these to reveal emotional subtext
  11. Gestures, habits, ticks, and mannerisms
  12. A home and the way she lives. For instance, a rundown penthouse shows that the character is rich but lazy.

How deep should deep characterization go? This depends on the importance of the character’s role and how far you want to take it. A rule of thumb: characterization serves story outline, not the other way around. If it doesn’t serve the story outline, you can nix it.

Dress Your Characters With Superficial Attributes

Last but not least, you can assign superficial attributes to your characters. This does not serve the story, but it serves the reading experience.

You know if a character trait is superficial, if you can change the trait any time without affecting the character or the plot. Examples of superficial attributes are:

  1. Name, age, gender, build
  2. The character’s place in the story world, e.g., family, career, social standing, relationships, friends, and enemies.
  3. Appearance — clothes, the way she moves, etc.
  4. The character’s backstory
  5. A character-themed vocabulary

The last one is super useful. Character-themed words distinguish characters in dialogues and POV narration.

Advanced writer tip: If you’re blocked, change one or two superficial attributions of a character and see whether that can get your creative juices flowing again.

Bonus Topic: How to Show, Hint at, and Reveal Character

Show character with the results of your psychological profiling and the superficial attributes you defined, in particular, character-themed words. Hint at character by revealing backstory and subtext. Reveal character through the decisions characters make.

A) How to Show (and not tell) Character

When you write in a character’s POV, you need to use character-themed words for descriptions, action beats, and internalizations. The same holds true for dialogue. Every character has her own way of speaking and uses character-themed words.

You can also show character through body language and smart dialogue tags. Example: “What did you say to me?” She puts her curly hair in a ponytail.

B) How to Hint at Character

You can hint at character by revealing backstory. For instance, you can show where and how a character lives, e.g., in a rundown penthouse or a tidy one-bedroom apartment.

The way a person dresses — neat, cheap, stylish, sporty — hints at character too.

The proverb If I know who your friends are, I know what your character is applies to stories too. Show your readers what friends the character has and how they talk about her. Then show her enemies and how those talk about her.

Last but not least, you can hint at character by revealing subtext. You do that by showing a character’s emotional reaction to her environment or the behavior of other characters.

Example: “You dont scare me.” She lights a cigarette and blows the smoke in his direction. The cigarette shivers in her fingers.

C) How to Reveal Character

Plunge your characters into adversity, let the pressure strip away their superficial attributes, and reveal the truth about their selves by letting them decide on courses of action.

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth of eight writing basics

I hope you enjoyed this article about psychological engineering and that it will help you fine-tune your characterization.

Why don’t you share an interesting character trait from your WIP?

* * * * * *

About Stefan

Stefan Emunds is the author of The Eight Crafts of Writing. He writes inspirational non-fiction and visionary fiction stories and runs an online inspiration and enlightenment workshop. Stefan was born in Germany and enjoyed two years backpacking in Australia, New Zealand, and South-East Asia in his early twenties. Prior to becoming a writer, he worked as a business development manager in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. At the moment, he lives with his son in the Philippines.

10 comments on “Characterization: One of the Most Vital Writing Skills”

  1. Wow! What a useful post. I've only just started the first draft of my current WIP and don't really know my protagonist yet. I will learn more about him in the next few chapters. I need him to reveal himself to me.
    I find it hard to plan a character in cold blood. I need to know a bit about them first, then I can go back and fill them out.

  2. I love all of the psychological insight that you bring to these posts. Thank you!

  3. So far, I’ve generally only written broad outlines for my novels, and fleshed out characters and sub-plots along the way-with my characters sometimes heavily influencing the sub-plots. Frankly, some intended minor characters outshine their roles and earn a greater part in the action.

    I’ve particularly noticed, whenever I’ve experienced an extended disruption to my writing, I come back with a revised evaluation of either sub-plots, characters, or both. Usually, in my view, these have been for the better-more interesting plots and characters, where these new stand outs take a more active and interesting role.

    I have moved more and more toward plotting, but my scenes still develop more organically. I know exactly what I want to accomplish plot-wise in each chapter, but only choose my approach to each chapter moments just before I begin writing.

    1. That's an interesting comment. Usually, writers focus on their protagonists and the main plot. Subplots definitely contribute to a rich reading experience.
      I like your approach to scene writing too. You know what you want to accomplish, but you don't stifle your scene pantsing. That's a balancing act.

      1. It’d be inaccurate to say I already know my main characters’ psyches, but I suppose I’ve just known people like them, usually whom I’ve admired or at least respected. Plus, I have a personal bugaboo about using stupid characters to move the plot or a scene forward. That device just annoys me. So, between these two prejudices, I suppose it makes it easier for me to intuit my characters’ ordinary responses. And by keeping them all fairly smart and logical, I still have the freedom to get away with a few (logical) twists and surprises (which I’ve always relished in a story).

        I have, as an afterthought, written biographies for some of my characters, but rarely felt need to consult them. And while I like most, I haven’t yet had any problem deleting one’s scene, if it doesn’t best fulfill a plot need.

  4. This is a profoundly helpful post, Stefan. I'm well into a first rough draft of my second book in a series and I know that my characters aren't as well defined as I first thought they were. I'll be referring to your post frequently in future drafts.

  5. By the way, I hadn’t mentioned it earlier, but I find your post excellent, thoughtful, and clear. Forgive me for rambling on and failing to give proper credit where it is due!

  6. I'm still reading and digesting this article, but I wanted to let you know that I especially like your idea of creating a story role profile for the important characters. I believe this will really help me in my writing as I continue to work on my first novel. Thank you for your insight.

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