The three pillars of characterization
Good characterization is a matter of discipline. Regardless of how you go about creating fictional characters, it’s their behaviors, thoughts, and actions that convey their characterization. If you tell the reader your character is a deep thinker with a goal of spiritual growth, then portray her as preening, superficial and manipulative in her actions, dialogue and thoughts, nobody is going to buy it.
Do, Say, & Think are simply a way to boil down action, dialogue and interior dialogue/narrative in a character’s point of view (POV).
I can tell you that The Dude in The Big Lebowski is “so laid back,” but nothing conveys that as well as his introduction. He shuffles in slippers and a bathrobe through a grocery store, drinks milk straight from the carton, then attempts to pay for it by check. I can tell you Walter Sobchak is temperamental, but nothing will convey that quite like him pulling a gun on a fellow bowler for letting a toe slip over the line. I can tell you Donny is a clueless nitwit, but nothing conveys it better than him piping in with the non-sequitur “I am the walrus” while The Dude and Walter try to discuss Lenin (not Lennon).
Real problems with characterization crop up when the story describes a character as X while her actions, speech, and thoughts reveal that she’s clearly Y and Z.
Characterization by Action
Do pertains to a character’s actions, large and small. This is everything from an annoyed glance to jumping into shark-infested waters to save a friend. All of your characters’ actions matter. Do is the most powerful weapon in your characterization arsenal. This is because what a character does says much more about him than what he says or thinks. You know the cliche “all talk and no action”? That refers to do.
So does “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Don’t tell me your story’s love interest is a selfless, gallant philanthropist then show him to be an inappropriate, bumbling doofus.
A great exercise to make certain you’re conveying what you intend about your characters is to isolate action, dialogue, and interior thoughts/feelings.
Here are some character actions isolated from dialogue and thought. The character getting dressed (the “I” character) is the younger of the two.
I shrugged out of T-shirt and yanked my stage shirt off its hanger.
He shook his head.
I stuck my arms into the sleeves of my stage shirt and started buttoning it.
He stepped inside the dressing room and shut the door firmly.
He pushed two fingers into my chest and backed me into a plastic chair.
Distracted, I’d buttoned my shirt off-register. My sweaty fingers slipped over the plastic buttons as I unfastened them and started over again at the bottom, careful to match the first button and buttonhole.
I stopped buttoning and lifted my chin.
I swallowed hard, my ears burning hot.
He slapped me on the back.
Clearly, one character in this scene is in charge: The firmly shut door, the two-fingered chest push into the chair. The other nervous, buttoning his shirt wrong and then starting over, avoiding eye contact. The scene is resolved with a jovial backslap from the character who is in charge.
Characterization by Dialogue
Here comes the tricky part. For dialogue to be good, it should be indirect. This means the things your characters say aren’t always going to line up with what they actually think, feel or want. This is what we mean when we say “take it off the nose.” There are few things as boring to read as trite, predictable dialogue where characters earnestly lay all of their cards on the table in an on-the-nose exchange devoid of subterfuge, manipulation, tension or joking around.
Here is the same scene, stripped down to dialogue only.
“Hey, maybe you can tell me something about a certain groupie?”
“A groupie. Remember that time…” (Describes the person in question and circumstances in detail)
“Ask me that question again, son. Did you say ‘groupie’?”
“Um. You know what I mean. A girl. Who was cute. Hanging out backstage.”
“Have a seat, son.” (Proceeds to lecture about the word groupie.)
“All I mean by groupie is the kind of chick who—”
“Hold up. Hold up right there.” (Goes on to grill the character about his attitude toward females, ending in a rhetorical question.)
“I don’t know.”
“Look me in the eye, son.”
(Action, interior thoughts and reactions)
“There is no difference.”
“That’s more like it. The word groupie is a shit stain on the undershorts of your vocabulary.” (Goes on to lecture a bit more.)
“No sir. What should I call them? I mean, how do you refer to them?”
“By their names. Now, I believe you were fixing to ask me something about a very nice young lady you met backstage.”
“No sir, I’m sorry sir. Never mind.”
“All right then, kiddo.”
Characterization can be effectively conveyed through dialogue. In this scene the younger character tries to play it cool, not letting on how much he likes this girl. The older character interrupts, then jumps on the opportunity to put the younger character in his place while keeping him in the dark as to the girl’s identity. In the end, he offers another chance to ask about the girl. By this point, the younger character has been so thoroughly chastised that he demurs.
Characterization by Interior Monologue
Thoughts or interior dialogue help tie a scene together emotionally. The amount of thinking in a given scene depends on the kind of story it is, and on how much of a thinker the point-of-view (POV) character is.
I screwed up my courage to ask him about her.
(Action and dialogue)
The disappointment in his eyes burned into me.
(Action and dialogue)
My dad had always demanded respect, and I resented that. But this guy commanded respect, which was a lot more compelling. Letting him down felt like falling into a well.
(Action and dialogue)
The above is all of the thinking or interior monologue in the scene, which is interspersed between the action and dialogue. The thinking is pretty sparse, but that’s in keeping with the POV of this particular teenage boy. There is plenty in the dialogue and action to convey his feelings, and he’s not going to go into some deep personal analysis about it.
Show v Tell
The action and dialogue are show. The thinking or interior dialogue portions are tell. Both convey meaning. The secret to tell is using it as either reinforcement for, or contrast against, what is shown. People love to advise “show don’t tell” about writing, but you really must do both in the proportions that work for the particular POV and the type of story.
Interior dialogue or narrative get boring when they’re redundant with what has already been shown, or are used in places where showing would be more interesting. If conveyed completely in “tell,” this scene would boil down to I asked him about that cute girl but he shut me down with a lecture about respecting women.
Note how little that really says about either character or their relationship. It fails to engage the reader. In fact, most readers would probably forget that sentence shortly after reading it. They’re more inclined to remember the character nervously fumbling with his buttons while the older character lectures “The word groupie is a shit stain on the undershorts of your vocabulary,” and his terse explanation that what he calls them is “by their names.” The dialogue provides far better characterization than “he lectured me.”
The way dialogue, action, and thought interplay will help create strong characterization. Let the characters shine through in their actions, dialogue, and reactions. Most good scenes will be a blend of all three that leaves the reader with a strong impression of who these characters are, what they think and how they feel.
There absolutely is a time for the narration of a story to be at odds with what your characters are saying and doing: when you are going for an unreliable narrator. A great example is in Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies. The first POV character carries on endlessly about what a great guy he is, then proceeds to behave in the most selfish and boorish ways imaginable. He’s oblivious to how he’s harming others, and that’s crucial to his characterization.
If you’re going to do this, make sure you’re doing it on purpose.
Photo credit: Joel Bengs