Characterization is one of those essential pieces of writer craft—the sort of thing that’s difficult but crucial to master. You can have a profound plot, but without good characters driving it, the thing goes nowhere.
Likewise, if you happen to be a discovery writer, finding the thread of your plot as you write (“pantsing” the plot, to use the vernacular), having strong characters gives you the perfect vehicle for moving forward. You can trust that a good character will drive your story. And you can be sure that poorly developed characters will wreck even the best laid plans. Or plots.
In this series of posts, we’re going to look at ways to build characters that come alive and carry their own weight—the sort of two-dimensional beings that read four-dimensional in the minds of the reader.
Let’s start with the good guys—our protagonists.
Not Always the Good Guy
The first thing we need to get straight, right from page one, is that there is a difference between the concept of a protagonist and that of the good guy. They’re not always one and the same.
As an example, take the movie (and the book it’s based on), American Psycho.
In both the film and the novel, the story’s protagonist is Patrick Bateman—a Manhattan-based investment banker who also turns out to be a serial killer. Not so great a stretch, maybe, but simply put, not a good guy.
Despite his murderous intent, impulses, and actions, we follow Bateman through a story from beginning to end, empathizing with his plight, identifying with his personal struggles, and mentally standing by his side during his challenges. We would (hopefully) recoil at joining him in his more nefarious activities, here in the real world, but on the page we’re intrigued by him. We follow along to see what he thinks, says, and does next. Which is mostly bloody, gruesome murder.
Though Bateman is effectively the bad guy/villain of the story, he’s still the story’s protagonist. And that gives us our first insight the role of characterization in our storytelling:
The protagonist is the point of view character—sometimes referred to as “the main character” of a story.
Whatever his or her motives, the protagonist is the filter through which we experience the events of the tale we’re reading (or watching or listening to). When the protagonist encounters a challenge or obstacle, we’re right there with them, scratching our heads right by their side, trying to figure out what comes next.
It’s through the protagonist that we are moved along in the story. They’re the motive force, the energy and machinery that gets us from Point A to Point Z.
Now contrast American Psycho with the novels and television series Dexter.
Similar concept—psychopathic serial killer, leading the story, even talking directly to us at times. But we tend to think of Dexter as the good guy, despite his murders, while we think of Bateman as a bad guy, despite seeing the story through his eyes.
Both characters are murderers, but we’re more or less ok with one and wigged out by the other. Why is that?
The answer is motive.
What a Character Wants
Building a good protagonist involves a lot of plates to spin and balance—some of which you’ll likely do instinctively. But some of those plates spin better when you know why they are spinning.
Motive is “an emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action” (American Heritage Dictionary). If you’ve watched crime shows and police procedurals, you’ve encountered the term before. To catch a crook (or a murderer), investigators first look for who had the most motive. And while “he who has the most motive wins” isn’t necessarily true, knowing that motives of various suspects can narrow down the pool quite a bit.
Likewise, knowing the motives that drive your protagonist will determine the type of character they are—sympathetic or unsympathetic.
Using our examples above, Bateman’s motives are largely centered on self-aggrandizement. Throughout the story, Bateman is obsessed with symbols of prestige. His apartment, his car, even his business cards are all part of a panorama of personality, a substitute for real self-esteem. An empty one, to be sure, but they’re all he has.
And when they no longer do the job, no longer allow him to feel a sense of completeness, murder is his next self-comfort vehicle. “I kill, therefore I am.”
So for Bateman, being a serial killer is about establishing a sense of self, but also about being something greater than himself, even if that greatness is an illusion (a pretty disturbing illusion).
Dexter, on the other hand, has a more altruistic motive.
Having recognized Dexter’s propensity for violence and murder early on, his adopted father trains him to redirect and channel those urges into “the Code.” His personal code becomes his guidepost for every decision he makes—allowing him to control his “Dark Passenger,” and funnel his urges into something that could arguably be considered good for society.
He becomes a predator of predators.
Dexter doesn’t murder innocent people to satisfy his urge to kill. He murders other serial killers, or others who prey on the innocent.
So in this comparison, we have two serial killers, two sets of similar urges, but their motives divide them. If we were to put both of them into the same story, Dexter would be on the hunt for Bateman, making them each either the protagonist or antagonist of the story, dependent upon another important characterization tool: Point of view.
Seeing Things Their Way
Point of view, often abbreviated “POV,” is the perspective from which a scene is told. If you’ll remember your grade school English classes, there are basically three points of view:
Whenever you read a scene or story written using “I” or “we” as the pronouns, it’s in first person POV. The entire story is being related by and through the eyes of the narrator, the teller of the tale.
I saw the car pull into the drive, half an hour ahead of schedule. This made me nervous. We weren’t supposed to meet until the specific time we’d agreed upon. I don’t do well when plans change.
The narrator of that scene is the focal point of all the action, and thus the protagonist of the story. They are the character through which we see the story unfold. Their perspective colors and shapes the events for us.
We don’t learn a ton about the protagonist from those four sentences, but we do get a tidbit of characterization: He or she is keen on keeping plans on the rails. It hints at some possible OCD behavior. But at the very least, we get a sense of the character’s paranoia.
Most of that characterization comes from the very last sentence—seven words, and we know a little something about the main character.
Something to note: It’s not impossible for a first person POV to come from the antagonist of the story. It’s just really tricky and challenging to pull off.
Basically, you’d have to tell the protagonist’s story entirely through the eyes of his or her rival or enemy, the character (or creature, or object, or even the event) that is trying to prevent the success of the protagonist.
The reason this is tricky is that telling any story through a first person POV tends to make the teller the protagonist. Even if they are the bad guy or the enemy in the story, by telling the story with their own voice they shape it and personalize it. The key to flipping this script is for the narrator to simply relay the story of the main character, without necessarily revealing their own role as the antagonist.
If that feels confusing, it’s with good reason. Making the antagonist the narrator without making them the protagonist takes some mental tricks and gymnastics.
Consider the film The Usual Suspects.
The narrative of the film is being relayed by Roger “Verbal” Kint, who spins the tale of a heist complicated by international intrigue and murder. Verbal relays all of the events of the story to Agent Kujan, including some details about the mysterious “Keyser Söze,” a mysterious Turkish crime lord that Verbal and his associates stole from.
Verbal is essentially the protagonist of the film, though clearly not the “good guy.” He is more or less on the side of law enforcement, though, filling in the gaps of everything that happened. Kujan wants Söze and determines who he believes Söze to be after hearing Verbal’s tale.
But then things take a shift, as Kujan realizes that Verbal made the whole thing up. We learn the details of the fake story as Verbal walks away from the police station, losing his limp gradually, his crippled arm loosening and becoming normal. That’s when we realize that Verbal and Söze were one and the same—the protagonist of the story had been the antagonist all along.
Even though we eventually learn that it was Keyser Söze telling the tale, misleading us all along the way, the delayed reveal that Verbal is an unreliable narrator effectively splits that character in two. He’s both the protagonist and the antagonist, in a sense. The antagonist narrated the story of a fake protagonist, right up until he eluded the authorities and reveals to us who he really is.
Now consider Sherlock Holmes.
Most of the Holmes stories are told by Watson—loyal companion and narrator—but he is merely relaying the actions, words, and sometimes even the thought process of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike in The Usual Suspects, Watson is not the antagonist of the Holmes stories (that’s usually some unseen villain, revealed by the end of the case). But he’s not the protagonist, either. He’s a concerned third party, narrating in first person, who is relaying someone else’s story. He’s an outsider showing us the protagonist’s character through personal observation of what Holmes says and does.
The point is, just because a story is being narrated in first person POV, that does not necessarily mean that the narrator is the protagonist. It’s worth considering using first person to control the perspective of the reader, revealing only those bits of the protagonist’s character that are useful for moving the story forward.
Any story that has “you” as the main character is a second person POV.
It’s rare. You don’t often see it. But there are literary examples out there.
The most well-known are the Choose Your Own Adventure books you probably read as a kid. Stories that set up “you” as the main character, letting you choose branches to follow as you make narrative decisions throughout the book.
You enter through the ancient, creaking door and find yourself in a dank and musty dungeon. Ahead of is a corridor lined with cells, all closed tight by wooden doors. Torches sputter in mounted stanchions along the walls, and you can smell the pungent odor of kerosene. Screams and moans can be heard emanating from the darkness.
Technically, second person POVs are another example of someone other than the narrator playing the role of protagonist. Typically, that someone is the reader—you. The narrator is simply relaying the events that are happening to you as you navigate the experience of the story. You, then, become the protagonist. Your choices are what drive the events of the story.
Again, this is not a common point of view in storytelling. You most often see it from a game-related perspective—such as Choose Your Own Adventure, text-based computer games, and roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons.
That said, you certainly aren’t limited to games, when using this perspective. Novels such as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City have had some tremendous success with this POV. It’s just unusual, sometimes uncomfortable for the reader, and has numerous challenges that make it tough to do right. But it can be done.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that characterization in a second person POV is usually pretty light by necessity. The writer knows nothing about you beyond certain basic human characteristics. You, the reader, must do all the “hard work” of bringing character and personality to the story. None of it happens on the page, but instead happens by default within the mind of the reader.
Letting characterization happen “off screen” as it were can be a bit of a shortcut, but only if it’s done right.
The most common point of view, and the one where the author’s characterization choices make the biggest difference—third person POV is essentially the default storyteller’s perspective.
Nearly every book you’ve ever read was written in third person POV, so you are already very familiar with it. And though I can’t quite say or prove anything about the origins of this perspective as the default and go-to storytelling tool, I have some theories.
Third person allows us to be outside and above the action of the story—to switch point of view characters as needed, and to control how much and how little information the reader sees.
We control the how, when, and how much of the story, only allowing those parts that will move it forward. Third person gives us the greatest control over the flow of the narrative.
In terms of characterization, third person POV lets us reveal those little quirks of personality in a character much easier than first or second person ever could. We can show characterization by action, rather than having to describe it in cumbersome exposition.
Kotler entered the main lobby of the Historic Crimes facility, pausing to pass through the row of metal detectors. As he waited in line, he glanced upward to the Latin motto for the agency—hovering an inch from the wall in steel letters. Ad serve historia, praesidio homnibus. To serve history, and protect humanity. He smiled. As an archaeologist, history was his domain, which was half of why he was here. The other half involved a long story best told over a fine whiskey.
There’s a lot we can learn about Kotler from that one paragraph—details of which would have been challenging in any other point of view. First, Kotler is our point of view, as the third-person narrator describes both his inner and outer activities. And look at the near-omniscient power of the narrator in this scene.
We learn that Kotler is physically entering the lobby of the Historic Crimes facility. But then we jump into his head, read a sign on the wall, interpret it from Latin to English, and then learn that not only is Kotler an archaeologist, but he also has some secrets and a richer story to share. A story we’d learn, if we sat down with him with a couple of glasses of George Dickel between us.
This is the power of a third person narrative—it lets us dive in and out of a character or multiple characters, shifting our point of view, limiting what the reader sees and hinting at things that can shape the personality of the protagonist (or antagonist, or supporting character).
So that’s perspective and point of view. Next time we’ll dive into some ways to actually build on the characterization of a character—the real nuts, bolts, gears, and belts that make a character work. In the next post, we’ll explore more of this idea of using a character’s actions to relay details of their characterization to the reader.