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Tips for Characterization in Your Writing

Trevor Prescott enjoys sharing his tips for effective writing.

Ernest Hemingway, 1899 - 1961

Maybe you're just getting started in the wide world of writing. Or maybe you've been writing for a while and find that you've struggled with characterization—you find that there's something just a little bit off, that you KNOW there's something not quite right about how you give your characters personality, but you're not quite sure how to fix it.

There are a couple of things that a lot of writers (both new and old) have a tendency to overlook. What we're going to do here is look at a couple of ways you can increase your control over your characters. Let's get started.

1. Actions

As you know, one of the most important keys in writing is to Show Instead of Tell. When you're establishing your characters, you want to show your reader his or her feelings about subjects without actually telling them. One of the ways we do this is via your character's actions. Take the following example. What can you tell about the main character in this blurb?

I listened to Becca's voice mail.

Hi Tony, it's me. I'm thinking of dropping by your apartment at about three so we can talk about the other night. Is that okay? Give me a call if you can't do it. Thanks!

As I hung up the phone I looked at my watch. It was one. That was when I turned my attention to my apartment and grimaced. The place was -- well, it had looked better. Sure, this kind of disarray was fine for when Lydia was around, but Becca?

I got to it. The laundry went into the laundry basket and the laundry basket went into the closet. I collected all the pizza boxes and stuck them out by the dumpster, then did the dishes and wiped down the counter (twice) with a sponge and dish soap. There were a couple of sticky spots on the floor from people spilling drinks so I pulled the mop bucket out and cleaned them up. Out came the vacuum so I could clean up the grit on the floor and clean out the creases in the couch. A couple of the pictures on the wall were askew so I straightened them. Come two, I hopped in the shower. Shaved. Dug some cologne out from the back of the cupboard and headed into my room, where I dusted off my dress pants and button-up.

Come two forty-five I sat in front of the television, shaking my foot and glancing at my watch every thirty seconds or so.

First, let's take a look at what ISN'T being said. For starters, we don't know who this Becca person is, nor do we know who Lydia is. We obviously know very little about the main character himself other than that his name is Tony and he has a messy apartment. Based on the visual cues (pizza boxes, spilled drinks) we get the impression that he recently had a party of some sort.

And yet we can infer certain bits of information from the piece about Tony's personality as well as his relationships with the two named women. Just by virtue that Tony is accomplishing so much in such a short period of time suggests that Becca is an important person to him. For one reason or another, Tony cares about Becca and her opinion of him.

This idea is reinforced by the comparison he makes between Becca and Lydia. Lydia, we can reasonably infer, is a good friend of Tony's. They've probably been friends for a long time because Tony doesn't seem to be trying to impress her. This tells us a lot about who Becca is, too -- we know she's MORE than a friend to Tony, or at least he sees her as being more than a friend.

Based on what Becca says in her voicemail and the visual cues, we can reasonably suspect that Becca was at the party and that something happened. It must have been something big because she's going out of her way to visit Tony at his house.

Of course, this is just speculation. Maybe Becca wasn't at the party; maybe she's a coworker or his boss, with whom he has a casual working relationship. This would explain his attention to detail. Let's keep digging.

One of the more telling signs of Tony's feelings for Becca comes toward the end of the example. Notice the word choice when he's looking for his cologne -- he "digs" it out of the cupboard. Word choice is important and we're going to be tackling the subject shortly. For now, just pay attention to that word choice. If Tony is "digging" out his cologne, it's probably "buried". If it's "buried", he probably doesn't use it that often. This means that he views Becca's arrival as a VERY special occasion.

The mention of the dress pants and button-up shirt reduces the likelihood that they have a professional working relationship. Tony already comes across as a relatively irresponsible character -- he probably spends more time partying than working -- so whatever job he has (if any) probably isn't the type where his boss would be visiting him at home to discuss business matters.

So to distill it all down, here's the working hypothesis we can work with moving forward:

  • Tony is a younger guy, maybe early twenties. He likes to party.
  • He recently had a party.
  • At this party, he met a girl named Becca.
  • Something happened between Tony and Becca. It was so important that Becca feels the need to come by to talk with him about it.
  • Becca is more important to Tony than a lot of people. He wants to impress her.

Now, it's open to interpretation whether or not Tony MET Becca at the party. The reason we suggest this is because Tony seems so intent on impressing her. We've already established with Lydia that Tony is fairly relaxed with his female friends; Tony doesn't care if Lydia sees his trashed apartment, but he DOES care if Becca sees it. This suggests that Becca is new (and special).

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Now go back and reread the original example. Notice how very little is actually said, but how much meaning is conveyed. In just one paragraph of specific information, we've conveyed to the reader a lot about Tony as a character and how he relates to other people.

2. Lenses

Let's say you have a piece of translucent blue plastic and a piece of translucent red plastic. You hold up the blue plastic and look through it. Everything looks the same, only everything has a blue tint to it, right? Now, you set aside the blue plastic and look through the red plastic. It's the same thing, only now everything looks red.

This seems pretty straightforward, and it is. Writing works in just the same way -- by showing the reader how your character sees the world, you tell a lot about that character's personality.

Recently a book came across my desk. In its original draft, the main character seemed to be a mopey, woe-is-me type of character. The character spent a great deal of time dwelling on past failures and feeling sorry for himself. As a result, his worldview was fairly negative. The author got the edited story back and reworked it, fixing the character so he was less prone to bouts of self pity.

And yet, while the main character no longer performed the actions of a woe-is-me character, the story itself still seemed depressed and mopey. Why? His actions had changed, and yet the story still read like 30K words of a character talking about how his dog had just died.

The reason: while the author had changed the character's actions, the perspective had remained. The character was still seeing the world through his depressed, woe-is-me lens. While the author had made changes to the character, the character was still looking at the world through the "red plastic" rather than seeing it through the "blue plastic".

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. For example, maybe you have a character that you WANT to be depressed at the beginning of the story, but then changes as the arc progresses so that his or her worldview improves. In this case, it's deliberate -- and very possible to do. Subtlety is the key here.

Let's look at some hard, concrete examples. Imagine this: we're writing a story where a character has just come home to find that a pipe in his basement has broken and water is spewing everywhere. Notice that in these two examples, the situation is the same (broken water pipe) and yet the impression we get of the character is entirely different:

"As I came down the stairs I saw the water. Christ. What now? I rounded the corner. And there it was, the pipe, dumping water all over the floor. Already a great big lake had formed. If things weren't miserable enough already, now I'd have to spend an hour fixing the pipe and another hour (or more) cleaning up the water. Great. I needed a cigarette."

"As I came down the stairs I saw the water. What's this? Rounding the corner, it seemed that one of the pipes had broken and water was pouring all over the floor. How unexpected! I scratched my head and looked at the lake that had formed, and decided I would call it Lake Unfortunate. Shrugging, I grabbed my tools and a mop and set to work fixing it."

See the difference? In the first example, the character's worldview is decidedly negative. The broken pipe seems like a huge, life-changing ordeal and is met with cynicism and sarcasm. In the second example, the character's worldview is positive. He seems to take a "stuff happens" attitude and even seems to see the humor in the situation, naming the water "Lake Unfortunate".

So while it's the same catalyst, the lens through which your character sees events gives hints about his or her personality. Does your character see the world through "blue plastic" or "red plastic"? One thing you'll want to be aware of, however, is that failure to take into account your characters' worldviews results in pasteurization. If you're not deliberately taking control of how your characters view the world, then they're all going to view the world the same way (and chances are, they're all going to see the world the way you [the author] see it).

It can be a simple matter of word choice. Compare these three sentences:

  1. I sat at the table. The man beside me laughed. His laugh was grating."
  2. I sat at the table. The man beside me laughed. His laugh was creamy.
  3. I sat at the table. The man beside me laughed. His laugh struck me as grating at first, but then took on a creamy quality."

Just by changing one word and altering the way your character sees the man's laugh, you've suggested a great deal about your character's feelings about the man. In the first example, your character probably doesn't care for the man. In the second, your character probably likes the man. The third is interesting because it can be used as allusion. Your character could be alluding to the relationship he or she will be having throughout the story (i.e., that s/he dislikes the man initially, but eventually grows to like him).

It all boils down to the lens through which your character sees the world. Pick the right words, and you control the lens.

How your characters look at the world says a lot about their personalities.

How your characters look at the world says a lot about their personalities.

Look at the language in J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel "Catcher in the Rye". What does Holden Caulfield's vocabulary say about his worldview?

Look at the language in J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel "Catcher in the Rye". What does Holden Caulfield's vocabulary say about his worldview?

3. Context

Again in the interests of showing instead of telling, context is a powerful tool that can communicate a lot about the personality of your characters. Let's take a look at an example. In this example, one character (Paul) is in a conversation with another character (Drew). Paul doesn't like Drew and wants to discontinue the conversation, but Drew keeps talking.

"So then we went a little further north," Drew said.

"Oh?" Paul replied. He looked toward the door. He wanted to leave and get home.

"Yeah. Then we went to the convenience store, and that was where we had the flat tire."

"No kidding?" Paul sighed, hoping to give Drew the hint. Jeez, would this guy ever stop talking?

"Yeah, I know, right? So we talked to the guy at the counter, and he said we could use the phone. But the phone wasn't working."

"Huh." Paul practically rolled his eyes. Apparently Drew wasn't getting the hint.

Does this example convey the information? Yes, but it does it in an inefficient manner. There's a lot of telling ("he wanted to leave and get home", "apparently Drew wasn't getting the hint"). On a deeper level, you're also dividing your reader's attention. Your reader is trying to focus on two things at once -- the conversation AND Paul's reaction to it, which dilutes the entire scene.

What we want to do is omit the telling and focus on ONE thing: the conversation. We'll leave the dialogue tags in for the sake of organization but we're going to get rid of everything else:

"So then we went a little further north," Drew said.

"Oh?" Paul replied.

"Yeah. Then we went to the convenience store, and that was where we had the flat tire."

"No kidding?"

"Yeah, I know, right? So we talked to the guy at the counter, and he said we could use the phone. But the phone wasn't working."

"Huh," Paul said.

Now, you're surely noticing the problem here. We've zeroed in on the conversation but we no longer have Paul telling us what he's really feeling. The above conversation could have any number of meanings -- maybe Paul likes Drew, maybe he dislikes Drew, maybe it's just two guys having a conversation. In short, what we need is context. When we use context, we need to set it up beforehand, like a magician setting up his tricks before the audience arrives. Rewind to somewhere earlier in the story, where Paul is talking to his friend Steve:

"Drew is going to be at the party," Steve said.

"Ugh. Drew? I hate talking to that guy. He talks and talks, and you can never get a word in edgewise."

Now, with this new context, look back at the example. Now we can see that Drew is telling a story that probably isn't very interesting. And, we can see that Paul's short, one-word responses have a sense of boredom about them. He doesn't want to be talking to Drew, he's just grunting his way through the conversation. Everything that is TOLD in the very first example is now shown just through the dialogue, and it's all because of a simple two-sentence conversation setting up the context.

It doesn't have to be negative, either. Remember that when we took the 'telling' bits out of the conversation, we turned the conversation into something that could be anything. All we have to do is change the context:

"Drew is going to be at the party," Steve said.

"Drew's going to be there?" Paul asked. "Oh man, that guy always has the best stories!"

Now look back at the example. Because we changed the context, we get the idea that Drew is telling a fantastically interesting story. Paul is giving one-word responses because he's so engaged in the story that he's not thinking about responding.

In short, context is a powerful tool when used correctly. You can use it to reduce word count, focus your narrative, AND convey information via showing that you would have otherwise had to tell.


Is this a complete list of all the ways you can convey information about your characters? No. It's a pretty good one, but there are many missing and more to be discovered. However, by applying some of these ideas to your own writing, you'll notice a drastic improvement in the quality of your showing, characterization, and overall tone of your story.

In this article, you learned how to use the actions of your characters to imply information about them. You learned how characterize them by adjusting the "lens" through which they see the world. You also learned how to use context to convey information that would have otherwise been told.

Have any other ideas? Share them in the comments below.


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 31, 2017:

How interesting. I've always enjoyed writing, and reading your hub has proved helpful and informative. Thank you.

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