Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
Nothing can kill your story dead like poor characterization. Without good characterization, it's hard to feel anything for or about your characters - it's hard to connect to them, it's hard to be curious about them, and it's hard just to care about them in any meaningful sense.
As a general rule, the more we come to learn about the intricacies of a character, the more we care - whether in a positive sense (we want to see the character succeed), a negative sense (we want to see the character fail), or a mixed sense (we want to see both, whether over different goals or even the same goal!) But at the same time, you don't want to just bring a briskly-moving plot to a screeching halt to deliver an infodump. And while something like an emotionally-charged heart-to-heart or an instance where a character just lays all the facts out bare to another character, that doesn't work for all of them - and probably won't be enough on their own when you can use them, either!
So what's to do? Well, you can drop little tidbits about your characters throughout the story in a variety of ways and places. Think of them as points in a dot-to-dot puzzle. On their own, they might not be conclusive, but when they're all put together people can draw the lines between them to see the whole picture. (And many people do love trying to puzzle these things out for themselves!) And what's more, this technique is great for is foreshadowing for something big you plan to reveal about a character later - these are the things that people will look back on and realize that yes, this is who or what your character was all along.
Table of Contents
- Let who your characters are shine through in what they say and how they act.
- Have your characters relate what's going on to their personal experiences or interests.
- Drop in a little something before the plot starts.
- Have your characters do more than one thing at a time.
- Give explanations for your characters' returns and departures.
- Use objects to convey information and to provoke informative reactions.
- And a few more tips
- In summary!
Let who your characters are shine through in what they say and how they act.
You can craft your characters' dialog and actions to say volumes about them in a variety of different ways - and not only for their basic personality traits and their current moods, but also for their deepest values, their dreams, their fears, their desires, their pasts, and even their very identities.
Now, this necessarily doesn't mean that your characters need just outright up and give declarations of how they feel and think, or that they do anything as blatant as applaud or walk out on someone depending on how they feel about what that person is saying. (Though that might sometimes happen, too.) It's primarily about making what your characters say and do pull double duty. On the one hand, it's relevant to the situation at hand (or at the very least doesn't detract or distract from it), but on the other it also reflects something personal about the character.
A character who wants children might respond very warmly and enthusiastically to the news that someone else got pregnant (EG, "Aww, that's wonderful!"), but a character who has no interest might not say much more than is mandated by courtesy. Someone who grew up in an area where violent crime was rare might have a far more shocked reaction to a murder next door than someone who grew up where it was commonplace. A character who gets especially outraged hearing about an injustice may have been personally affected by something similar at one point, or closely knows someone who was.
If a character suddenly perks up and listens in when someone mentions a baseball game, we can guess that character is interested in baseball, but someone who starts paying attention to something else when the topic of baseball comes up probably is not. Someone who winces or just stares for a couple of seconds when someone says something probably finds what was just said distasteful. Someone who enters into a place and goes wide-eyed looking around at everything has probably never been there before, but someone who makes a beeline to a specific destination is probably very familiar with the place.
Also keep in mind how tones of voice and body language can change the meaning of one single word dramatically. For example, an "Mmhmm?" said as the listener looks at the speaker indicates interest. An "Mmhmm..." as the speaker looks at something else probably means disinterest. A drawn-out "Mmhmm..." combined with a raised eyebrow can mean sarcasm or skepticism. Use this to your advantage, too.
Have your characters relate what's going on to their personal experiences or interests.
This is an easy way to drop in bits and pieces about your characters' pasts and passions while keeping it relevant to the plot, and it can play out a few ways.
You might have a character make an observation that the current situation is reminiscent of one the character went through or read in a book somewhere - and possibly includes a brief personal opinion on it, or says it in an emotionally-charged way that informs us how the character feels about it.
You could also have a character mention that the crisis they're all facing right now is similar to one the character faced beforehand. The character makes note of it and talks about the earlier crisis a little, then describes something used to solve it. This is used to inspire a solution for the current crisis.
A character might even liken a prior experience to the current situation... but have the analogy soon break down, possibly in a humorous way.
Also, if you have multiple characters who shared the same experience, you can have them all get in on it - which establishes that they have a shared history. Show them with different opinions and disagreements on the details, and you can show people how your characters differ from each other.
Drop in a little something before the plot starts.
You can take a short amount of time before introducing the plot to insert a few lines of dialog that tell us about your characters - as well as give the story a little time and space to establish where the characters are and what's going on. Let's look at a few ways this can play out (some of which you may have seen on TV!).
One way this goes down is a scene opens with two characters having a discussion. It goes on for a short while before something happens that engages the plot - such as a character walking in with news, a strange signal picked up on the scanners, or a meteor crash outside.
Another way this can play out are two characters walking someplace where they will encounter someone or something that will engage the plot. But before they get there, they have a conversation where they talk about something personally important, or express their personal views over something.
Characters are sometimes shown engaging in personal hobbies or projects for a short while before something happens that engages the plot.
A character might go to a venue to meet up with another character who will engage the plot. But before the other person arrives, the character has a short conversation with someone who works there.
It doesn't have to be limited to the start of your story, either - it can also take place at the start of a new act or chapter, or any time the story shifts in time and location. (Though doing it every time it does will probably be overdoing it.)
Have your characters do more than one thing at a time.
Have you ever noticed how in movies and TV shows, people rarely ever just talk? They're often doing something else besides - for example, having lunch, picking out what to wear, or working on a project. The reason for this is that people just standing or sitting around talking are usually boring to watch. But this can also do something else: it can show us what the characters do with their lives, and it can give us insights to their personalities. So even if you're not writing a screenplay, consider busying your characters up with something that tells your audience something about them.
You might have your characters engage in activities that relate to their personal interests or hobbies. Have them bake, knit, build stuff, write checks to charities - anything, as long as it says something about who they are and what they do.
You might have your characters doing things they don't like to do. Show them reluctantly doing tasks they really don't like. And remember, a character skillfully doing a disliked task means that the character has to knuckle down and do this a lot, but a character fumbling at it means that this character probably avoids it. A character doing a half-hearted job at it means that this person will try to get out of the task as soon as possible by doing only the bare minimum necessary, if even that.
You can engage your characters in any of their day-to-day chores or errands. This can also give us insight into how they live and what kind of people they are.
Have your characters perform actions related to their personalities. For example, a character who is neat and organized might tidy things up a little while talking to someone, a character concerned with appearances might primp in front of a mirror, and a character who doesn't like to sit still might pace around the room.
Conversely, you can have your characters talk about something unrelated to the immediate plot while they're shown doing something that is related. But don't take too long (EG, more than a few lines of dialog), or else it'll feel like you've paused the plot so the characters could have a pointless conversation.
Give explanations for your characters' returns and departures.
Is a character coming in or going out? You can use this moment to say something about that character.
If you have a character who's leaving the plot for awhile, have that character or another one mention why at some point. For added effectiveness, add in an emotional component, too. For example, if the character took time off from work to take a family vacation and seems excited to go, we can infer that this character probably values family time and has a good relationship with the rest of the family. On the other hand, a character whom we find out was reluctant to go on a family vacation probably doesn't have the greatest family relationship.
Is your character coming back from vacation? Does your character really enjoy work? Then you might have your character say something to the effect of, "Now that I'm done with vacation, I can get some real relaxing done. What do I have to do?"
So if you can, take advantage of this - because just a line or two can say a lot.
Use objects to convey information and to provoke informative reactions.
Objects are great for giving information about your characters, and there are so many ways you can make use of them!
The stuff your characters keep in their spaces can say a lot about them. A worn baseball glove says that its owner has probably spent some time catching baseballs. Band posters on the wall say that someone is a music fan. A shelf full of books along with a few dragon statuettes say that someone is probably an avid fantasy fan. Worn-out furniture in the living room and cheap cosmetics in the bathroom say that whoever lives here might not have a lot of money.
Gifts that your characters choose for others might say something about them, too. Someone who chooses gifts that the recipient adores is probably good at noticing what the recipient likes or dislikes. Someone who chooses gifts that the recipient reacts badly to probably is not - or possibly just doesn't care.
You can also use characters' emotions and reactions to objects to convey information about them! For example, if a character winces when someone brings a Jackson Pollock print into the room, we can guess that's probably not to the character's tastes. A character who pauses to gaze at a fine necklace in a shop window display would probably like to wear that necklace, and might be fantasizing about being in a situation that would call for wearing such a pretty jewel. A character who longs for the past might look wistfully at an old photograph, an old journal, or even at an old school or home.
Objects with symbolic value are great for this, too. A character shown handling and looking at an object that belonged to a now-deceased loved one is probably thinking about that loved one. Have the character throw the object away, and that tells people that the character is making an effort to move on from the grief. Show a character looking at or handling an object associated with responsibility or authority, and we can presume the character is contemplating having that responsibility or authority.
Wardrobe and such can be also used to convey information. A pair of dirty and scuffed hiking boots say that their wearer spends a lot of time active outdoors. A white shirt and tie might mean an office worker. Neatly-done makeup, even if it's for a scene look, says that the wearer puts a lot of thought and effort into appearance and/or spends part of the day with a stylist.
So when you're writing, do two things: ask yourself what your characters might own that might reflect who they are, and give it to them; and think about the objects that are around your characters or the objects that they might encounter, and how you might use them to say something about your characters.
And a few more tips
You don't have to do all of these in each and every story, especially if it ends up feeling forced or contrived. Go with the ones that fit the tone and style of your story the best. As long as audiences learn enough about your characters to get invested in them, it's all good.
A few trivial details now and then won't hurt, but the best character-related information to drop is the stuff that's going to become relevant to the plot or to the character's personal conflicts in the story very soon.
Make notes of any "trivial" information you drop off the cuff. This helps you avoid contradicting yourself later on, and it gives you a list of things you might be able work into the plot or into your character's personal conflicts later on.
You can also drop tidbits to misdirect your audience - just so long as everything makes sense in retrospect when the truth comes out. This means that the misdirecting tidbits should be things that have at least two explanations: the one that you want your audience to believe for awhile, and the one that's supposed to be the truth. (A "reveal" that's a complete non-sequitur isn't a reveal; it's an ass-pull - or might as well be one as far as your audience is concerned.)
Next time you watch or read something, notice whether and how it uses any of the items suggested on this page. Pay attention to how they play out, and how long they play out for. Also, keep an eye out for any other ways not mentioned here.
- If possible, let your characters' words and actions pull double-duty - even as they're relevant to the plot, let them say something personal about your characters, too.
- Your characters can relate what's currently going on to their own experiences and interests.
- Your characters can talk for a little bit before the plot engages.
- Have your characters do more than one thing at a time. While they're talking about something related to the plot, have them do something that shows us something personal.
- Give explanations for your characters' departures and returns. Where are they going, or where did they go? What are they going to do, or what did they do? Why? How do they feel about it?
- Use objects to say things about your characters. Personal belongings can say a lot. So can characters' reactions to any objects they see.
- You don't need to use all of these tips - just use what fits your story.
- Keep track of anything you make up off the cuff so you don't forget it - and so you can maybe make a plot out of it later.
- Use ambiguous tidbits to misdirect the audience.
- Pay attention to how other works of fiction use these techniques.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in:
Simple Ways To Fill Out & Humanize Your Character
On Showing vs. Telling
Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
Basic Tips For Writing Better Ensemble Casts
The Case For Killing The "Blank Slate" Character
On Plot Structure & Plotting
Stuff You Should Cut From Your Story