Since I released The Basic Character Creation Workbook last week, I felt it was only proper to keep the party rolling.
Oh... you though I was kidding when I said that characterization was my jam!
My sweet summer child...
I called my workbook “basic” because it’s really the bare bones way to build a character from scratch. But it would be a mistake to think that “good characterization” is the same for every book. To put it simply, different stories require different characters.
But how do you decide which characters belong to which stories?
To be clear, I’m not talking about genres here. The types of characters that populate a contemporary romance don’t typically appear in thrillers (unless you’re going for some sort of genre blending masterpiece which I’m totally down for). What I’m really talking about are the four basic building blocks present in every story: place, idea, character, and events. These factors and the balance of them in your narrative determine the kids of characters your story can have.
Ugh. This sounds like I’m about to give you a bunch of really rigid rules that you must adhere to in order to become a “Capital W” writer. I promise that it’s not as strict as it sounds. Also, remember that we just want to know where the box is so that we can immediately find ways to break it open and write outside of it.
Let’s tackle these four basic parts of a story one by one, starting with place.
Stories about place
This is quite literally the world that your characters exist in. The landscape, home, interior rooms, country, and culture are all included in this, as well as things like the weather and government. All of the sights, smells, and sounds that come with them are solely there for your character to interact with and will illuminate all that a character thinks feels, says, and does.
Some authors do very little when it comes to detailing the setting and others treat it like an additional character in the book. The latter story is not meant for a character to explore some soul deep inner conflict or navigate a tense thrilling plot. Instead, your character is meant to explore a world wholly different from their own and the tension arises in the comparison between the world they know and this new world that they are exploring.
In a story that emphasizes place, you don’t really need deep character development. The character is a stand in. The reader is meant to insert themselves into the story. Having that said, very few stories are purely about place. In most cases, the setting might be a primary focus, it is accompanied by a strong plot—science fiction, dystopian, & utopian stories are good examples. I’ve also seen stories about pa lace in quiet suburban settings like Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. American Psycho also does it very well by grounding the reader in 80s pop culture.
Characters in a story purely about place don’t need a lot of development. Character roles—which I discuss in The Basic Character Worksheet—and archetypal representations work well enough which can leave room for you to focus on the setting and the other deeply interesting aspects of world building.
Are you writing a towel that emphasizes place? Ask yourself these questions:
Are you spending a considerable amount of time developing your setting, culture, and interior spaces of your novel?
Are your character actions and reactions determined largely by how they interact with their environment and external conflicts?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, you may be writing a novel that centers place! Tell me about it in the comments!