Before I begin, a disclaimer: what follows just scratches the surface of characterization. People have written many books on creating believable characters, and I’m smart enough to know I can’t cover everything they do in one post, or even a series of them.
With that in mind, what do I mean by poor characterization? What makes it poor, and how can you as a reviewer spot it, describe it, and offer help for it to the “guilty” writer?
We readers want the characters of the pieces we read to be:
- Believable. They can be really bad (a Hannibal Lecter, for example) or really good, but they can’t be so intensely, unremittingly, uniformly bad or good that we lose faith in them. That means they have to also be…
- Interesting. Or quirky. Or flawed. Definitely flawed. They might have some trait that lies outside the norm of the rest of their behavior and yet isn’t so outré that it’s unbelievable. More likely, though, their flaw is what drives the conflict in the story. The author has to make sure we understand why the character has that trait, even if the character herself does not. Good or bad, we also want characters to be…
- Redeemable. They have the chance and the ability to overcome their flaws. Whether they take that opportunity, and whether they succeed or fail, are other matters. Indeed, how they respond when the opportunity—or demand—presents itself can be very interesting, even the core of the story, but the ability needs to be there. The characters have to be…
- Committed to something. It doesn’t matter so much if that commitment is to understanding their mother, say, or killing her, but the presence and the intensity of that commitment, that passion, make the character more interesting. This commitment is essential for the protagonist and antagonist, but commitment can really round out secondary characters too. Commitment creates the opportunity for conflict when there’s someone else with a different commitment: the mother who doesn’t want to be “understood,” or who wants to live. This is the central distinction between the protagonist and antagonist. The conflict can be internal, too, which makes the character more interesting. Indeed, an “agonist” is someone who engages in conflict, and “agonist” comes from the same Greek root as “agony” does. Commitment also means characters will be
- Active. We want characters who do things, not just sit around contemplating their navels, their troubles, their relationships, or their feelings. (See the definition of “agonist” above.) Even in “literary” fiction, where much of the conflict is internal, the characters need to be doing something in response to that conflict, not just sitting around moping. Passive characters are, for the most part, boring. There are exceptions, like Bartleby of Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, whose aggression is passive, but nonetheless real. Speaking of feelings, we want characters to…
- Feel. Not so much that we’re drowned in their emotions, but not so little that they become robots, either. Even Star Trek’s Vulcans had feelings, and not just when “The Seven Year Itch” hit them. Finding something “interesting” is an emotion, too, after all. They had to have feelings, or we wouldn’t have been able to relate to them. Lastly, we want characters to be…
- Distinct. Many of the things I’ve listed above serve to make each character different from all the others in a piece. As I wrote last time, conflict is a primary requirement of a story, and differences between characters is something that creates conflict. Can you imagine a story in which every character was identical in every respect? Even if they start out that way (a group of clones, for example), differences among and between them have to develop. They can’t all have identical experiences all the time.
In other words, then, we want characters to be people. Wow, what a concept! Piece of cake, right?
Not so much. At least, not for me. Maybe not for you.
So what makes for poor characterization? Not having the qualities listed above is part of it, or not having enough of them, but poor characterization can also be revealed by having too much of some trait. Problems will arise if a character is:
- Too quirky or flawed. When a quirk or flaw becomes a distraction, or disrupts the story, it’s worth asking what the story’s really Also, if a character is…
- Too committed to something. This can be tricky to judge: how much commitment is too much? That extreme commitment may be their central flaw, the thing that drives the story’s conflict. But if they become a one-trick pony, they become boring, annoying, tiresome, uninteresting. The same is true if they’re…
- Hyperactive or melodramatic. The hyperactive character wears the reader out while showing no depth. In a later post I’ll write about story pace, but there’s a “pace” for a character, too, and someone who’s “on” all the time doesn’t demonstrate the variety of character pace that makes them interesting. Conversely, melodrama provides too much change of pace. A character who slams from one extreme of emotion to another also becomes boring, or worse. High emotion is fine in the proper time and situation but a character who has no other kind of response will drive readers away. By the same token, the character who…
- Lacks any emotion will be just as uninteresting. This is true whether they’re the clichéd cold-blooded killer or the dude who’s too cool for everyone and everything. There are exceptions, of course. Bartleby doesn’t lack emotion, actually, but he has only one, extreme diffidence, and Melville uses that lack of variation as the perfect reflector for his first-person narrator’s emotions, bouncing them back without being affected by them, thus creating the story’s conflict.
Judging how well an author has drawn his or her characters can be difficult, especially if you’re reading a work just a chapter or two at a time. You really need a much larger part of a work, perhaps all of it, to be able to put together that complete picture in your mind of each character, and to understand whether he or she comes off the page as a person, to harken back to the Keith Cronin comment I quoted last time, or if he or she remains a character. You can, however, start to build that mental picture of him or her as you read more and more of the work.
To summarize, then, a well-drawn character has a balanced complexity: they’re a mixture of many traits. Not so many as to be a confused muddle but not so few as to be a cardboard cut-out. Some traits will be more prominent than others, and different traits will be more prominent at different times. Some traits will define the character’s core, others will just decorate their surface. For the story’s protagonist, those core characteristics should be the ones at greatest risk.
Questions for You
Here are some questions for you to ask about the characters as you review a piece:
- Do I see enough different traits in the character to make her interesting? If so, which ones stand out, and why? If not, what seems to be lacking?
- Are there so many traits that I don’t know who he really is? Which ones could be trimmed out or reduced?
- Are her responses to the situations she finds herself in appropriate to the story? (Responding inappropriately can be a legitimate character trait.) If they do not make her more whole, why not?
- Does he have flaws but also the potential to be redeemed from them?
- Is she committed to something? Is she too committed to something?
- Does he show a range of emotions that is too wide, too narrow, or appropriate? If too wide or too narrow, what might the author do to make the range more appropriate?
- And the ultimate questions: Do I believe her and believe in her? Do I want to know more about her?
What questions to do you ask yourself when evaluating a story’s characters? Please share them in the comments box below.