Weaving Characterization

“There’s no need to stop a story to characterize,” writes Editor Sol Stein in Stein on Writing, 1995.

You know your characters inside and out. Their hair color, skin tone, clothes sense, shoe size and favorite foods. You know how they move and how they speak. You know everything there is to know about your characters. Now, the trick is to show the reader everything he needs to know without describing your hero’s traits in a grocery list.

When it comes to characterization, use every thread on the loom, except straight narrative description. Don’t describe your characters – show them. Challenge your readers to pick up the clues to characters you stealthily weave into your story. Each clue brings the reader closer to a full understanding of your characters.

There are several methods of characterization available – actions, appearance, habits, speech patterns, props, even smells.

1. Actions
“Jane had brown eyes and limp hair that she tucked behind her ears. She wore a blue housedress. She was very nervous as she sat down in the chair.”

From this paragraph we know a little about Jane, but it’s not interesting or even very enlightening. An easy way to make your character description paragraphs more interesting is to make them active. Show Jane’s personality and mood through her actions. Describe her physically as a backdrop to what’s happening in the scene. Use drama, not thoughts, to characterize.

“Jane perched on the edge of the wooden chair, eyes trained on the floor. She smoothed her faded housedress over her knees as if drying moist palms. One thumbnail found its way to her mouth, the nail already chewed to the quick. She lowered her arm, sending furtive glances to the other occupants of the room.”

This example describes Jane through her actions. We know she’s nervous by her moist palms, chewed thumbnail and furtive glances. She’s also probably poor (faded housedress) and shy or has something to hide (eyes trained on the floor). Describing your characters through their actions shows rather than tells.

2. Habits
Another trick is to give your characters memorable personality traits. Stroking a mustache, chewing on the arm of a pair of eyeglasses, twirling hair and playing with an earring all show something about your character.

For example, your protagonist might jingle his pocket change nervously every time he speaks to strangers or she might run her tongue over her bottom lip before she speaks. The reader may not remember the character’s name, but he’ll definitely remember the eye twitch or the tapping foot the next time that character appears. This is especially useful for characters who may only appear infrequently in your story, but who are important to the plot.