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Characterization is essential to good writing, whether you’re writing memoir, short stories or novels, or even a dynamic journalism feature article.
How do you do good characterization? First, I tell clients: You should feel the character as if they’re in the room with you. If you can’t, you haven’t painted a strong enough picture. They should ultimately take control of you; they should tell YOU what they want to say and how they want to act. You are simply the tool by which these characters act upon the page. But getting to that place where your character is fully alive is the tough part.
Characterization typically involves physical description, hair and eye color, height, color of skin. What do they wear? What are their hobbies? Their religion? Job? Relationship with lovers, friends, siblings, parents? Showing both the good and bad sides of the character is essential so that they don’t come across as cardboard cutouts. Give the character a strong voice in dialogue, and show the details of their lives. A good way to do characterization is to describe the contents of their bedroom. Is it clean? Messy? Are there hundreds of shoes in the closet? Is the carpet torn?
What is your character’s greatest strength? What is their fatal flaw? Understand these deeply and you’ll better understand your character.
Still, you can nail character too intensely on the head. You can give too much information, explain and describe until there is nothing left to the imagination.
There are stories that emanate a strong character with very little description of character. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephant,” comes to mind. In this story, the communication is short and difficult between a man and young woman, but you can still sense each as strong unique individuals. The lack of communication, what they DON’T say, goes a long way to help create a strong sense of character.