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How to Create a Good Character

Many writers seem to think that creating a good character means including an absurd amount of detail about that character. The belief is that a lot of detail makes a character more lifelike and three-dimensional. This article argues that too much detail can actually addle with the pace of a story and come in the way of penning a taut narrative.
Joss Whedon on creating a character
The characters within a book were, from a certain point of view, identical on some fundamental level—there weren't any images of them, no physical tangibility whatsoever. They were pictures in the reader's head, constructs of imagination and ideas, given shape by the writer's work and skill and the reader's imagination. Parents, of a sort.
― Jim Butcher in Small Favor
A lot of writers are often highly organized about their characterization, listing each character’s personality traits, interests, life history, and so on. This is done with the intention of creating characters who are well-rounded and believable, as much like real people as the author can make them. Unfortunately, this approach does not always ensure producing crisp and deep characters who are impactful and retention-worthy. In this Buzzle article, we will see a points to keep in mind when creating a character from scratch.

Is Detail Necessary?

In simple words, yes. Detailing is exceptionally essential in order to create an image from scratch in the mind of the reader. However, the more important question that every author has to face is "how much detail about any character should be included in any piece of work?" As essential as it is for an author to know everything about the characters he creates, not all of it should be packed into the text because not every facet of every character is important to the story. Creating three-dimensional characters who have favorite ice cream flavors and so on is not necessarily a bad thing, but it also does not guarantee that the characters will be more impactful. It is very important to keep in mind what makes literary characters really stand out. The intention to add depth to a character does not necessitate the inclusion of an abundance of detail simply because that is not what makes a character compelling in the eyes of readers. Quite often the opposite is true.

Focusing on Important Information and Compartmentalization

When we read novels, we usually regard the characters much as we would regard people in real life, namely, as other people. As human beings, we are constantly subject to a huge amount of incoming data regarding our surroundings, including information about other people, and all this data is simply too much for us to process efficiently at one go. Part of what has made us so successful as a species is the fact that we are able to filter out much of the information that is not relevant to us at any particular moment, giving us the ability to really zero in on what matters.

Ernest Hemingway had once famously said,

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

Consider this example. If you have a conversation with a coworker, you need to focus on work, and on your coworker’s role in office. Even if you know a lot about your coworker’s family, educational background, and interests, you allow yourself to temporarily forget about these things in order to deal with him in a professional setup. So, even in real life, not every detail we know about specific people is of use to us when dealing with them in any possible capacity. This same principle applies in novels. Good characterization is not a matter of adding excesses of extraneous details that in no way adds to the plot or storyline. Rather, being judicious and economical when character sketching and yet not missing out on vital details that etch out a vivid and believable fictional personality is what helps make a good, crisp, and well-defined character. Only the details that are important to the story should be included in the novel.

As an author, one must often question oneself as to what purpose every particular minute detail—no matter how minute—is serving. On finishing a book, a reader must never wonder why s/he was told in the first chapter that the protagonist fighting in the Vietnam War loved vanilla ice cream. The author must provide a reason for mentioning that aspect of the hero in the text somewhere. In this particular case, it could just be the author's way of communicating that the hardcore, externally harsh soldier also had a softer side to him; he too found pleasure in the simple joys of life. However, if this explanation is not given directly or indirectly anywhere in the book, it'll take away from the crispness of the text and leave the reader wondering as to why it was mentioned at all. All loose ends must be tied up by the time a story nears its close.

Of course, each novelist must judge for herself whether a detail is important to her story. It could very well be the case that knowing a character’s favorite ice cream flavor adds something to our perception of the character that will make the events of the story fit together in a more believable way. However, if the preference for chocolate ice cream does not serve the goal of the novel, it must be left out. For instance, J. K. Rowling had once stated in an interview that in the initial phases of her writing the Harry Potter Series, she had made elaborate lists that stated the names of houses to which the parents of the current students belonged when they were students in Hogwarts. Now, we readers were given bits of that background information when it came to only a select few of the characters. Rowling needed to establish the streak of bravery that was present in all Weasley family members and so we were told elaborately about how all Weasleys were a part of Gryffindor for generations. But we can hardly say that we know all about every character ever mentioned in the Harry Potter series.

Ernest Hemingway's Style of Characterization

For a clear, almost extreme example of this principle, the novels of Ernest Hemingway are instructive. Hemingway is famous for having written very sparsely, including very few details or descriptions that were not directly related to the story. Today, Hemingway is considered one of the greatest American novelists of all time, in part because he had an ability to pare novels down so that each characteristic, description, and event held great significance in the narrative as a whole.

Many count Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises among the best books of all time. The sparse characterization in this novel is, if not a model to emulate, at least a good source of inspiration for those looking to tighten their characterization skills. From Robert Cohn’s background as a boxer to narrator Jake’s unfortunate war wound, each character detail has a clear and direct connection to the events that unfold in the novel.

So, writers can always take a lesson from Hemingway’s style of creating characters who were well-defined, whose vital characteristics, as required by the story, were stated and yet not overshadowed by the inclusion of unnecessary details.
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Published: September 23, 2013
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