A Guide To Effective Characterization

How to Write Effective Characters is a question that often plagues writers. Characters are extremely important as the story is based on their actions and interactions. Here are a few tips:

  1. ‘Real’ Characters: Good characters think, act and behave like real people. Their life doesn’t start or end with the story the author is penning down. They have a personal history and a past that made them who they are and influence their actions continually. For instance, in Hunger Games, Katniss’s father’s death imbibes in her a sense of responsibility towards her mother and sister, and goads her into learning how to hunt. Both of these are pivotal to the rest of the story. A tip to achieve this would be to model characters based on people you know in real life.
  2. Credibility: The credibility of a story in the minds of the audience depends on the credibility of the characters in the story. Characters must always be ‘in character’. Their actions must be consistent with what the audience knows about their personality and the culture they are living in. For instance, Katniss’s love for her sister Prim had been established earlier in the storyline in Hunger Games. It is only thus natural that she would volunteer for her at the ‘Reaping’ knowing that participating in the Hunger Games almost always results in an inevitable death.
  3. Behaviour: In a film, unlike a novel, the audience doesn’t have the luxury of knowing about what goes on in the character’s mind. They form assumptions about the character’s personality from his or her observable behaviour, which includes: style of talking, vocabulary, mannerisms, speech patterns, clothing, dressing style and the company he or she prefers to be with. In My Fair Lady for instance the audience and Professor Higgins both guess the low social status of the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, from her heavy Cockney accent, her limited English vocabulary, her un-lady like mannerism (she wipes her nose on her sleeve), and her eccentric clothes.
  4. Justification: Effective characters are rarely totally good or bad, but fall in the gray areas of morality. They become what they are from their past experiences, and there is a definite reason for their behaviour, even if it’s the behaviour of an immoral and corrupt villain. For example, in Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, we learn about Voldemort’s past. His father abandoned him and his pregnant mother and his mother dies soon after giving birth to him. He grows up in an orphanage – alone and friendless. His miserable past guides his actions in the present. For instance, he never makes friends even after coming to Hogwarts, as he doesn’t trust others.
  5. Motivation behind Actions: There should be an underlying motivation behind a character’s actions. For instance in Harry Potter it is Voldemort’s quest to become immortal that lead him to murder people and create Horcruxes. Motivations give a sense of consistency to the film’s storyline as all that a character does is because of his underlying motivations. Some motivations may change over the course of the film while others remain constant.
  6. Do not fall into the trap of stereotypes: It is very easy to write clichéd, over-simplified, and stereotypical characters that the audience can easily relate to but they should still have some ‘real’ traits. The difference is very easily visible and marks the difference between effective and ineffective characters. An example from Harry Potter can be Hermione who is at first presented as a goody two shoes, bookish character but over the course of the films she establishes herself to be much more than simply a ‘nerd’. She is studious but also practical, courageous and friendly.
  7. Relatable Characters: A writer must care for his characters. Only then will the audience too care for them, and it is necessary that the audience cares about the character like they would care for a friend. Characters should have attractive traits that make the audience likes them. For instance, in Hunger Games we like Peeta because he is caring, kind, generous and loving.
  8. Uniqueness: An effective character must have some unique individual traits that stand out. These are the traits you will use to first describe the character. For instance, Katniss in Hunger Games is usually distinguishable by her clothing style (pants and shirt), her characteristic long braided hair, her hunting skills and her love for her family and friends.
  9. Tags: Tags are used to make a character unique and have him or her stand out in the audience’s mind. They are distinguishing mannerisms, gestures, speech, dress or some other characteristic that separates them and makes them stand out. For instance, in Clockwork Orange Alex and his droogs wear special white suits, a fake eyelash over one eye, and talks in a different language. Or in V for Vendetta the protagonist is known by the Guy Fawkes mask he wears and his exaggerated style of speech. Tags, however, shouldn’t be overdone as that can make characters seem gimmicky, caricatured or simply a freak.
  10. Establishment of Character: Establishing a character takes some time. The writer must give the audience time to familiarize themselves with the character and start empathizing with him or her.
  11. Growth and Change: Like real life people, characters too are dynamic. They grow and change over the course of the films through myriad experiences. There can always be a new development that brings an entirely new dimension to the character that was previously unknown. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry learns about Snape’s true character that was previously unknown to him. Through this experience he stops hating Snape for killing Albus Dumbledore, as he realizes this was pre-arranged between the two, and starts respecting him for endangering his life in Voldemort’s service to act as a spy for The Order of the Phoenix.
  12. Conflict within a character: Characters can have personal internal conflicts. For instance, Snape loved Lily but hated her husband James. He thus has ambiguous feelings about their son Harry, whom he both bullies and protects. In the same story, we also have Ron who is Harry’s best friend but who at the same time envies his fame. Internal conflicts are good portrayals of a character’s internal confusion and makes them more relatable since all of us too have many internal conflicting values.
  13. Character Interaction: The interactions between characters in a story drive the plot of the story. Character relationship is important in a story. Their conflicts, what they reveal or hide about each other, what they want from each other all link to form the web of the story plotline. A certain amount of contrast between characters is also important to help the audience distinguish between them. For instance in My Fair Lady, though Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are friends, there are easily noticeable differences between the two. Professor Higgins is blustering, petulant an arrogant. Colonel Pickering is mild, generous and pragmatic.
  14. Minor Characters Development: To a writer the minor characters in a story should be as important as the major characters. They shouldn’t simply exist to feed lines to the major characters. For instance, Dobby in Harry Potter is a minor character but even in the short time we see him we learn some of his character traits like loyalty, strong determination and will.
  15. Comic Characters: Certain characters in a story are exaggerated for comic effect. For example Cecil Graham in Lady Windermere’s Fan or Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
  16. Attractive Villains: ‘The ladies love a bad boy’. It is crucial to create villains with their own personal charms and attractive qualities. The audience should connect to the villain almost as much as they connect to the hero. For instance Loki in Avengers has a sharp wit and charming self-assurance that makes him as delightful a character as the Avengers themselves.
  17. Names of Characters: The name of a character also reveals a lot about their personality, and also has cultural connotations. For instance, Katniss is a name of a resourceful plant that grows wild in jungles and thus signify the character’s affinity towards Nature and her resourcefulness. A nickname is also pivotal in adding meaning to character interactions. Katniss’s nickname ‘The Girl on Fire’ is crucial to the story line. It helps her win the first Games and later symbolize the revolution she brings about in the country.
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