Viewable With ANY Browser

Note: My Web pages are best viewed with style sheets enabled.


Characters and Characterization

Random Thoughts About Those Fictitious Persons Who Populate On-Line Fiction

Copyright © 2006, 2008 by David E. Ross

Most fiction is about people and how they interact. After introducing the characters and their environment, fiction generally presents conflict and its resolution. Sometimes, there are repeated cycles of conflict and resolution. While conflict can be between a person and nature, generally it is between two individuals. Occasionally, conflict involves three individuals with different patterns of two-against-one. It definitely does not require a dozen characters.

Annually, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences awards an Oscar to an actor, an actress, a supporting actor, and a supporting actress. There is no Oscar for a group or mob.

Program! Program! You can't tell the players without a program.

I have encountered some stories on-line that had so many characters that I had to create a list to keep track of their relationships to each other. While the beginnings of such stories may attract my attention, soon the proliferation of characters becomes confusing.

I'm confused? So are too many authors. I recently read a chapter of a story where Scott and Alan were walking down the street. Suddenly, "Alan" became "Mike", quite a different character. By the time they reached their destination, "Mike" was again "Alan". If the author can't keep his characters clear in his own mind — characters owned by the author — how can readers keep them clear? (A few days later, I noticed the chapter had been revised to correct this confusion.)

No, I'm not saying that a story should be limited to only two or three characters. However, the author should pick one or two main characters. The others should appear, perform whatever task is necessary to further the plot, and then disappear — perhaps forever. Unlike in the movies, a particular supporting character is not needed throughout a story. There will be no Oscar for him or her.

Who is telling the story? If it's the author, then it's a third-person narrative. If it's a character, it's a first-person narrative. Pick only one of these points of view and stick with it.

One great annoyance is the narrative that keeps jumping from first-person to third-person and back again, sometimes entirely within a single paragraph. This is disorganized and very confusing. Jumping between first and third person in the same sentence is just ignorant:

I had not said a word and sat their patiently not taking his eyes off Ramon.
In this sentence, the two highlighted pronouns refer to the same person!
I roared with laughter when I heard that.
This appeared in a story where, to that point, the narrative had been third-person. Shortly after that point, it switched to first-person.

Some first-person narratives switch between characters. This can actually be very effective, providing the reader can tell immediately when a switch occurs and which character becomes the new narrator. Don't confuse your readers by switching in the middle of dialogue or within a single paragraph. And don't switch too often; this, too, can confuse your readers.

Even twins have some individuality. Characterization — the narrative description of distinctive characteristics or essential features of a character — should make each character distinct from the others. This involves not merely describing a character's physical appearance but also his or her personality.

While characterization should occur relatively soon after a character is introduced in the plot, it should not be done in the form of an inventory.

My name is Lucas. I'm basically an average white guy. I'm 5'11" with brown hair and brown eyes. I'm naturally skinny, but not bony. I don't really have muscles, but if I really focus and flex my arm as hard as I can, small bicep and tricep muscles appear.
Ughh!! Instead, it should quickly evolve during the character's early participation in the story's plot. On the other hand, in some stories, an effective plot might initially hide part of a characterization, revealing it later in a surprise twist.

8 January 2006
Updated 13 July 2008

Valid HTML 4.01