Kill Your Zombies; Seven Characterization Secrets
Zombies, with rare exceptions, are flat characters, the exact opposite of well-rounded individuals. We all know what they look like, how they act, and what they want. Brains! Zombies are such a trope, all you need is the word and your readers know what to expect.
When you are revising, always be watching out for any zombies you may have created by accident. I mean, if you’re writing a zombie horror thriller, go for it. Otherwise, read on. Examples of flat characters are the librarian, the teacher, the waitress, the cowboy, the manager, and the truck driver. Unless you take care, these characters will be as flat as cartoon stickers, unmoving and unloved.
There is an entire book about your first fifty pages (in the resources below), but characterization has to come at the top of the list when you reach the revision step.
Seven Characterization Secrets
Nobody will care about your story if they don’t care about your characters. When you begin writing your story, you sometimes don’t even know who is going to be important at the end. I’m looking at you, pantsers.
How to Kill a “Zombie” Characterization
Let me state clearly that unimportant supporting cast characters do not need to receive the royal rounding treatment. Use tropes like “the librarian” when it makes sense, but make sure your main characters and important secondary characters are more rounded than zombies.
First, characterization is not about appearance.
Gee, if I had a penny for every time an author described their character’s clothes, hair, and eyes and expected me to care, I would be a rich woman. Yes, let your readers get a sense of appearance right away, but work it in little by little.
Penny stood on her tiptoes to reach the second shelf of the break room cabinet. Her fingertips brushed against the box of diet sweetener she wanted, but she only managed to push it farther away.
Her nemesis, Ben, loomed beside her, and his neatly pressed sleeve blocked her view. “Here.” He handed the pink box over. “Some sweetness to make the day better.”
See? Penny is short, and Ben is taller than her. But the characterization is more subtle than their appearance. She has an antagonistic attitude toward her co-worker. He is probably a professional of some sort, based on his attire; again, his pressed sleeve was one detail. And Ben seems nice enough, although she could take his remark as some sort of insult or jibe.
What did Penny notice about Ben? Did she welcome his assistance? Why is he her nemesis? Was he flirting with her? All the questions! I want to know more.
Characterization comes through:
- speech, especially vocabulary and
- body language,
- conflicts, and lastly,
In your point of view (POV) character(s), add internal monologue and what they notice about others and their surroundings to your characterization tools.
For instance, if you were inside the head of Monk, the obsessive-compulsive TV character, you would notice the scuff on the suspect’s shoe, the thread hanging down from her coat hem, and the dried blood under her fingernails. Not only does this characterize Monk, it goes a long way to characterizing the suspect.
Second, in those first fifty pages, did you spend a disproportionate amount of time describing unimportant characters?
There is a time to sketch a walk-on character and a time to expand a bit on someone who will be pivotal later.
If a character doesn’t turn out to have a critical role later in your story, you need to scale back on the four pages you wrote about them early on. It is enough for you to know their back story; there’s no need to burden your audience.
Third, did you capture the essence of your main character’s heart?
Their motivation for how they act? Did you manage to communicate the lie they believe? Truly, this is the crux of every great story: the main character believes a lie, usually about themselves or their role in the world. Harry Potter thought he was a powerless orphan, barely getting by on the reluctant charity of his stupid relatives. Katniss Everdeen saw herself as a dead miner’s daughter who would live out her days poaching food for her mother and sister.
What is your character’s chief flaw? Are they arrogant or bitter or timid or aggressive? It doesn’t have to be a big flaw, but if you can exploit it later to get your character in trouble, make the flaw clear to the reader before you use it as a catalyst. Also, the flaw gives you scope for a convincing character arc.
Speaking of flaws, is your main character likable or relatable?
It’s fine if your character is generally unlikable to begin with, but make him relatable or give her a soft spot very soon. Otherwise, you will lose your readers. Ebenezer Scrooge, the crusty miser in Dicken’s novella, The Christmas Carol, is a pathetic reprobate, but it is easy to sympathize with his reactions as soon as the ghosts start showing up. And he has an excellent redemption story.
How does your character interact with her setting?
Is your MC a fish out of water, or is she the big fish in a small pond? The character’s relationship with their setting tells us about about them as a person. Remember, setting is BOTH place and time, not only a time in history or the future but the time of day. But I digress.
When we meet Rey in The Force Awakens, the desert planet of Jakku is the best means for quickly characterizing her. The harsh environment immediately marks her as a survivor, a scavenger, an upstart, and a dreamer. We understand Rey’s character through her interactions with her setting.
Did you avoid telling your reader about your character?
Resist the urge to explain. Your readers are intelligent; they will “get it.” Your job is to reveal your characters by using all the tools at your disposal. Use brush strokes like a painter—a dialogue brush, a description brush, and other strokes for actions and reactions, choices, conflict, and so forth.
Characterize while you move the plot forward, never stopping, always building. This is why we tell ourselves the story in the first draft and craft the story during revisions. It’s rare to accomplish everything at once.
Lastly, do your characters’ lines and interior monologue, their “voice,” match their personality?
Also, are your characters distinct? Do they differ in tone, etcetera, from other characters? Be careful; this is easy to overlook.
To avoid sound-alike characters, print out your manuscript. Highlight each character’s dialogue and interior thoughts with a different color. Then read the individual’s lines aloud and edit them for consistent and distinct voice. This is a key part of revision and self-editing. Print. Mark. Read it aloud. Revise, revise, revise.
Resources I recommend:
Bell, James Scott. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: the Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Compendium Press, 2014.
Gerke, Jeff. Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction. Writers Digest Books, 2010.
Gerke, Jeff. The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors and Readers and Set up Your Novel for Success (First Fifty Pages). Writers Digest Books, 2011.
Weiland, K. M. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure. Penforasword, 2016.