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The Devil is in the Details

Characterization is critical to any work, and good characterization can make a work exceptional. Take for example, Negan from The Walking Dead or Tom Hanks in Castaway. The character makes the work spectacular, although setting and plot are important, as well. How can you make your good characterizations memorable to your audience for a long time to come?

One way of looking at character is through the sensory details. How does the character look? Do not say “brown, curly hair”; instead say “stringy locks of mud colored hair” or “glossy waves of ebony.” Tell your audience if they are tall or short, thin or stringy, or wiry or muscular. Describe the clothes they are wearing specifically to capture their style.

Besides sight, include touch. Do they have silky skin or dry, wrinkled skin or cracked, flaking skin? While you often don’t think of it, a person has a distinct smell, too. Capture the smell of the person by analogies. Do they smell like flowers, sweat, money, or salty air? Do you smell dirty clothes or a fruity perfume? Are you overpowered by the stink of their shoes or the smell of pizza on their clothes?

Sound is another important part of characterization. Is their voice deep and sexy or high and shrill? Do they sniff or cough or say “um” a lot? Dialogue can characterize a person with the words they use and their speech pattern as well. Watch television impersonators to see the exaggerations that they use to help you see mannerisms and speech patterns more clearly.

Another way of capturing characters is by their interactions. Are they always ready with a spiffy comeback to comments? Are they quiet except when they are addressed directly? Do they run into the action or hang back and wait? While you may have an idea of the interactions that are part of the plot you design, keep in mind the little interactions between characters that accent who they are.

Characterization is also important in specific settings. The characters should reflect the setting in their movements, speech, and description. The cop in New Orleans would be hot, wearing a hat, and smell like the street, while the cop in Minneapolis would have a red nose and heavy coat from the cold. Use your setting to accent your characterizations.

Be careful of using stock characters, rather than unique, believable characters. The villain may be a horrible person, but a sweet smile or helpful disposition will make a rounder character and add depth to your work. The hero may be courageous and muscular, but showing his hobby of flower arranging or baking cookies will add depth to your character. The femme fatale, the strident district attorney, the rough fisherman will all take on a life of their own when you show different facets of who they are. It is also through their interactions that they best reveal who they are. Get them together at happy hour or at church on Sunday mornings to highlight those idiosyncrasies that make them unique characters that readers or viewers want to see return.