3 things to think about when using indirect characterisation

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:

Dialogue 

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.

the shadow

Body language

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.

Other Characters

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.

3 things to remember when editing your book

Leave it to rest

Once you have finished your manuscript it’s really important to put it down and have a break from your ‘world’ of characters and plot. If it’s a work of non-ficiton this rule still applies. You have spent years, or at the very least months, working on this book and it needs time to settle – much like a good red wine: open the bottle, let it breathe, and drink. Mmm…I can smell it but let’s not get distracted by wine. If it’s on paper, which is unusual these days, tuck it into a drawer, preferably where a dog or small child can’t reach! If it is electronic then back up, back up, back up. Did I say back up? I can’t over state the need for this. You don’t want to spend precious hours re-editing your work. It’s a tough enough job as it is. Use external hard drives, USB sticks, email, cloud, dropbox– anything you feel comfortable with. Don’t assume that because it is on your computer that it’s safe. Trust me, my mac has crashed completely during the writing of my book and it is almost ready for publication. It has needed two new screens and a new chip and it’s not that old. I love it but they are not foolproof and things do go wrong.

A glass of red wine. Photo taken in Montreal C...

Read it aloud

Reading your work out loud helps you to pick up on any awkward words or uneven and over packed sentences. Try it with just a page of your writing – honestly, it helps. Sometimes when you read the words in your head you miss things which won’t sound right to a new reader. Your writing needs to flow and to do this it is important to hear how it sounds. You have read these sentences over and over but hearing them will give you a fresh perspective. If you can find a kind soul who will read at least a part of it to you this will help.

Edit in stages

It’s up to you how you do this  and everybody edits work in different ways. There are different levels of editing which need looking at:

1. The fine detail of spelling – check for consistent spelling. Are you writing for a UK or American market? Pick the spelling your target readers are used to and stick to it.

2. Grammar – I can’t recommend highly enough the book  The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This little gem should be in the pockets of every  writer, and anyone who uses words for their job. It contains the best of every critical grammar rule and the authors’ writing on style is timeless.

3. Style – this brings me back to the book above. Strunk and White stress the need to avoid over writing with this quote: ‘If the sickly-sweet word, or the overblown phrase are your natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, you will have to compensate for it by a show of vigour, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs,which is Solomon’s.’  The issue of style is important. Your style needs to be consistent. For new writers it takes time to find your voice. Holly Lisle writes a great article about this here.

4. Structure – are you plot and characters believable? Does your story hang together tightly? Is your story arc smooth? Here is a graph to show story arcs for TV and graphic fiction. Does your main character or characters move through different stages and conflicts? Is there tension in the plot? Do they face opposition to their desires? These questions are endless but it is important to check that the structure of the book works. If you are writing non-fiction have a look at this for structural pointers.

Happy editing and enjoy a glass of red (or whatever you fancy) when you’ve finished for the day. I wouldn’t recommend doing both together, although some people manage it.

W. H. Auden

‘Stop all the clocks’ is one of many favourite poems, and I went to visit Auden’s rented summer-house at Kirchstetten, in Austria, recently.
It is where he penned many of his poems and the upstairs room where he wrote has been preserved as a museum, with his book shelves, kettles, empty vodka bottles, typewriter and slippers still in place. I really enjoy both photography and writing, so I wanted to begin this blog by sharing some of the photographs of the upper room of the summer-house, in the hope that it might inspire your writing as much as it did mine. His typewriter sits neatly on his desk, where you can look out over views of the quiet street and lush green trees, made me wonder what it must have been like for him during his writing day, working in a secluded location in the middle the most beautiful countryside. It reminded me of George Orwell’s hideaway, which he also rented on the Isle of Jura, where he penned ‘1984’. There is something about isolation for writers that seems to trigger bursts of creativity. I sometimes find that I need a cafe with noise, and people milling about and chatting, but it is in the quiet places that an idea often forms in a chrysalis, and where the words appear on the page, inviting me on a journey with characters and events.