Monday, 30 January 2012

Defining a character

There are the books that depend on characters and there are the books that depend on plot - some accomplishes both, like the ever fantastic Harry Potter series. But for the beginner, succeeding with even one of those is difficult.

So today, I have decided to talk about characterisation. 

How do we, as readers, define a character? Is it the physical attributes, or is it the personality?

You would probably say both, and sure, that's fine, but I have found that physical attributes doesn't really matter. Why? Because we never really see what a character looks like - we usually define a character by personality, because that is something we see in action.

Take any novel written in first-person viewpoint and you see what I mean. With first-person viewpoint, the ways of finding out what the main character looks like are limited. We can see this person in a mirror, or we can hear the protagonist being described by someone else (although that would sound ridiculous in dialogue). The point is, we may never find out what the main character looks like, but that hardly matters - we know the personality of that character inside and out, and that's all we need.

So how do we create these characters? How do we make them stand out from the crowd? How do we make them so that we don't confuse them with any other character?
Okay, the first thing is to give everyone a distinct name (I know - too basic) - it sounds easy enough, but you would be surprised as to how close some names may sound or look, and giving your characters names that are too similar to each other (like having them all start with the same letter) is often very confusing for the reader! (In other words, don't have an Edmund and an Edward, or a Harvey and a Harry, in the same novel!)

Now, the most difficult thing is to create these characters' distinct personalities.
Just a few hours ago, I played through one of my favourite DS games - Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright - where every character always has very distinct character traits. The game is, as is implied by the title, about the defence attorney Phoenix Wright. And naturally, handling murder cases implies handling a lot of different people: victims, suspects, witnesses, attorneys, and prosecutors. The point is, these people need to be easy to remember, and to relate to.
I'll take a few examples:

We have Phoenix Wright, who strongly believes in justice, and who is constantly made fun of by others because of his good-willed nature.

We have his rival, Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, who is very proud and self-confident and who, since he decided to become a prosecutor, has been named 'genius'. He is not very good with people, but his heart is in the right place. He is also afraid of earthquakes.

Phoenix's partner, Maya Fey, is a Spirit Channeling Technique apprentice (can talk to the dead) who is always positive, but a bit naive.

To give examples from a more famous source (Harry Potter):

We have Hagrid the good-willed giant; Dumbledore the old, weird genius; Hermione the clever Muggle-born; Snape the wicked guy-you-never-know-which-side-he-is-on, and so on, and so forth.

The point is, you always strive to have approximately 3 distinct character traits for every person in the novel. The less traits, the easier to remember - but the harder to find realistic (so you got to find the balance!). Rowling managed to balance this perfectly, but she also managed to give every character a memorable face. This is tricky, but it's all in the details. Not the usual things, like eye and haircolour, but things like 'dimples' or 'filthy nails' or 'a crooked nose'. It's all in the details!

So now I wonder - how do you establish the traits of your characters? Do you make a list of traits and just choose a few, or are these things decided already when you first come up with the character? 
How much time do you spend on 'getting to know them' before you start writing? 
And how do you decide on their looks? How important are the physical attributes to you?


  1. Well done Sabina, it seems like you really figured out the perfect formula for characterisation! P.S Phoenix Wright is an awesome game :)

  2. Yeah, it's awesome! :D I just wish I had the Edgeworth games, but I can't find them anywhere...

    Haha, nah, I'm just trying to sound smart. I have problems making my characters come alive, to be honest. I should listen to my own tips ^^'

    But thanks for reading, and commenting is a big plus! <3