Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, a biweekly feature where I troubleshoot an aspect of writing. This week we’re going to dissect what makes good CHARACTERIZATION.
So. Characterization. Yeah.
Gonna be honest here: I have no clue how this is done.
I’ve mentioned in previous installments of Writing Wednesday and on episodes of the PubCrawl Podcast that writing is comprised of both Craft and Talent: the skills of writing can be learned, but inspiration must be innate. A sort of je ne sais quoi, as I’ve said before. For me, characterization falls into that muddy area between Craft and Talent; you can build a character from the ground up with all the right “ingredients” to make them compelling, yet no matter what you do, they are lifeless and forgettable.
And this is hard. You can read endless articles about likeable characters, unlikeable characters, “strong female characters”, Mary Sues, Gary Stus, sympathetic characters, three-dimensional characters, but none of them will give you the secret to life. We are all Dr. Frankenstein, hoping for that lightning strike that animates our characters and makes them live beyond the page.
Some of that is personal, of course. What resonates with one reader may not resonate with another. But there is a difference between not liking a character for personal reasons and not liking a character because they’re underdeveloped.
We’ll use J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter as an example. There are many reasons the Harry Potter books are so successful, but for me, it’s Rowling’s gift for creating memorable characters that stuck with me. Even characters that share less page time than the main Trio are distinct and individual: Seamus Finnigan, Dean Thomas, and especially Neville Longbottom. And Rowling is an interesting example to use, not because she did everything perfectly, but because she didn’t.
For me, Rowling’s most noticeable failure in the series was the case of Ginny Weasley. Even now, after several reads from start to finish, I have a hard time describing Ginny without resorting to what she looks like or what her relationship is to other characters (sister, girlfriend). I could tell you what Zacharias Smith was like (smug) or Marietta Edgecombe was like (toadying), but I cannot for the life of me pinpoint what Ginny Weasley is like.
Part of the problem is that all her interactions with Harry & Co. feel stilted, shoehorned in, or unnatural. We see very little of Ginny in the first four books, and then suddenly in the fifth book, we are told—told, not shown—by Fred and George that their youngest sister has really strong Bat-Bogey Hexes and…is sassy? Spirited? Independent?
And even then, that could have been a characterization hump I could overcome if it weren’t for the fact that the narrative seemed determined to undermine Ginny. She’s never given a chance to be her own character; she’s always framed through a male character: first as Ron’s little sister, then as Dean Thomas’s girlfriend, then the object of Harry’s desires. Throughout it all, we are constantly told, not shown, how “awesome” Ginny is. By the time she makes the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Harry’s been kicked off. By the time Harry decides to go after the Horcruxes, she’s left behind. When it comes to the final battle of Hogwarts, Ginny is constantly protected and coddled and never given a real chance to shine; when it comes to facing against Bellatrix Lestrange, her own mother steps in to take care of the Death Eater.
Contrast Ginny with Luna Lovegood. Luna is distinct and memorable, but moreover, we are shown, not told, that she is eccentric yet wise, and we are also given glimpses of her life outside the Trio. You get the sense that Luna is her own person outside Harry’s sphere. Her first appearance with radish earrings, reading a magazine upside-down, oddly-timed laughter, these are all incredibly specific details as to the sort of person Luna is.
And perhaps that’s the real secret to characterization: specificity. There’s nothing specific about Ginny I can recall, aside from her ability to cast strong Bat-Bogey Hexes. Specific details about a person reveal character, and I don’t mean the dimple in their chin or the exact shade of their shades. Specificity in movement, in reaction, in deed.