Characterisation is an important part of bringing the reader into the world of your story. It helps to make the characters real and will keep the pages turning. When the reader knows your character they try to predict how he or she will respond in any situation you place them in. With good characterisation the reader will want to know exactly how your character behaves and feels and why. This can be done using direct or indirect characterisation.
Authors often give us direct characterisation and state attributes of a character – ‘Megan was stubborn and independent, never accepting help from anyone.’ This tells us instantly what she is like.
Indirect characterisation can be more subtle, leaving the reader to figure out what the character is like. This can be done in several ways so we’re going to take a look at dialogue, body language and the responses of other characters:
Characters reveal their thoughts or feelings through dialogue. Their words can show their age, gender, attitude, mood, background and their relationship to the other person/people in the conversation. The dialogue can also show a stark contrast to the character’s body language. You might have a character who is shuffling or restless but their words sound calm and controlled. In this case the dialogue doesn’t work in isolation. The reader will be wondering why there is a contrast and what the character is really thinking. If Frank says to Dora, ‘It’s been a quiet day, nothing to report. Can I get you anything?’ while pacing across the driveway, you’re left wondering – what their relationship is like, what he should be reporting and why he seems restless if there is nothing to share.
Dialogue can be used to show a range of emotions:
‘I need to call him before it’s too late.’
‘She didn’t tell me the car wouldn’t be there. Wait till I get hold of her.’
‘Marty, I need to check the switches, I don’t want to leave anything on. Do you think the house will be alright?’
‘The city is alive and buzzing, especially for a new kid in town.’
‘The officer looked half dead, I doubt we’ll make it out of here tonight.’
‘This is the best job in the world. I feel alive. I’m alive.’
These quote show characters with different emotions, issues, characteristics and with just one line of dialogue the reader gains a better understanding of who the character is and what makes them tick.
Body language experts tell us that only 10% of our communication is through words themselves (although the figures tend to vary). Most of our communication is non-verbal: eye movements, posture, gestures, facial expressions. If this is the case then it we need to pay close attention what we write about the non-verbal communication of our characters. How can you get your character to appear nervous, angry, distracted or elated without words?
Have a look at these:
He spun the pencil, avoiding the man’s gaze.
Carry leaped up from her seat and hugged the doctor, this was the news she had hoped for.
Miles pressed his fist into the wall, his heart pounding as he heard the verdict.
She raised her eyebrows, her head tiled as the next one arrived.
These aren’t all subtle but see what I mean about body language? These characters haven’t said a word but I would guess you have at least one scene in your mind from any one of these sentences. You can create a character very quickly with just a few gestures or expressions. Have a look at these for some ideas.
A few tips:
Proximity to other characters show how close the person is to the other character.
People who are uncomfortable in themselves or in certain situations won’t make eye contact. A person who is lying may not make good eye contact (although there are exceptions to the rules).
Can you make characters mirror one another in a conversation? It can show closeness and acceptance.
Aside from a one man stage show, most narratives have a range of characters. This can be a useful way of characterising either a main character or other characters in your writing. We all interact in different ways depending on – how well we know the person, possibly their gender or age, what they have done to us or how they respond to us, how much we trust them…and the list goes on, but you see what I’m getting at. The responses to your star play will tell us a lot about A) your star player and B) the other characters.
Nobody came near him, the bench was a form of solitary confinement.
The neighbours always appreciated a call from Betty, they liked to hear her voice.
All the staff stood up when Bob walked into the room.
Even the dog cowered when Dad came downstairs.
Rachel tried to get people to help her pack her bags at the counter but noone would even look at her.
Brent couldn’t understand why people phased out of the conversation when he spoke.
These are just a few of the many ways we can characterise in our writing. Of all of these I think I have found body language to be the most interesting and complicated in my writing because it can convey so much but it needs to be done carefully. When done well, it leads to powerful images etched into the mind of the reader.