Characterization happens when story people play out their parts. Heroines, villains, and others people the story. Each should have their own personality.
Writing a book gives the author a chance to create stunning characters. Yet, characterization can apply to other things... like buildings. How many times have you looked at an interesting house and though it had character?
River Bones is my first mystery/thriller. Notice how the first chapter begins. It is one line and a news heading – but it says exactly what the story is about. Additionally, the very first word, “blood,” instantly gets our attention.
The Us Review of Books first published their primary review. From the shorter review:
These are the kinds of statements I wish for all of you in your reviews.
Their Final Review is on their site. Read what they said about the ending. It's wonderful! Please read.
Next, let's analyze the 1st Chapter of
Blood-red letters filled the top of the news page on the monitor screen…
Serial Killer Victim Identified
Each time Sara Mason went online to read about the Sacramento River Delta, the hometown area she never had a chance to know, her homepage featured headlines about the elusive psychopath. She read the Internet posts with concern and remembered the fear caused by the Zodiac Killer of the 1960s and 1970s. Like with the Zodiac, authorities had no direct clues as to who the killer might be.
Reading the updates always set her nerves on edge. Just after moving into her home she thought she heard someone walking around her property late at night but could never find a trace of anyone being there. Was she imagining things?
The next paragraph jumps right into the action. It introduces a little back story by information provided in the present through the Internet.
The news article is a perfect set-up for characterization of the elusive madman.
The news went on to disclose…
While the Internet posts set up the plot, heroines, even villains, can be doing and thinking other things. In this case, the protagonist, Sara, is interrupted by an old memory. This is foreshadowing. See my article on FORESHADOWING in the article section.
Often, it is too easy to use back story or flashbacks to build characterization. Don't fall into this trap. A little back story is okay, but characterization should be built mostly with the present action.
“A cat,” Sara said out loud. Then an intrusive old image came to mind: A pink dress and a small furry bunny.
The story should not continue with the full article being included in the book. In this case, we’ve already said that Sara has read other articles. We can now go on to narrate what she already knows.
Previous reports indicated the victims had been put into the ground with whatever they had on their person at the time. The killer dug the graves in remote areas near rivers and streams where the ground was soft and damp, promoting decay.
A police profiler indicated the perpetrator probably lived within the crescent shaped area where graves were placed. Remains were found beyond Interstate 80 to the west, Roseville to the north, and east of Rancho Cordova along the American River. Within that crescent lie the entire Sacramento metropolitan area and suburb towns.
Most victims were missing for years, some for decades. Since the graves discovered in recent times did not contain fresh skeletons, it was assumed the killer either left the area or simply quit killing, which law enforcement believed unlikely. Now and then, a new name was added to their list of missing persons.
One last item in the Internet article disclosed…
Notice in the following section that Sara’s characterization is played up. In the first chapter, we must get to know the main character. It cannot wait till a lot of story has taken place. We must know at least the main character from the beginning. It justifies how she will handle herself as the plot moves along.
Characterization for other important story people are introduced soon as possible as well.
Not all characters need be introduced in the first chapters. However, they must not come into the story too late. Otherwise there is a question of relevance.
~ Did they appear only to get the heroine out of a tight situation?
~ Will they continue to contribute to the story as it progresses.
And if a character is introduced late in the story, characterization must be developed immediately, perhaps by how they enter the story and handle that part of the plot action.
If not careful, Sara’s imagination could get out of hand. Too many house break-ins in the barrio where she had lived in Puerto Rico for the last three decades left her looking over her shoulder. She needed a place where she felt secure.
Once deciding to return to live in her hometown area, her first major decision was to look for a house along the river, but not confined to Rio Vista in Solano County where she attended high school. Many people moved into the Delta and built multi-million dollar mansions along the river. That was not for her.
She slipped into town before Christmas a few months earlier, and bought an older house, a present to herself. Wanting to own a Victorian mansion was a lifelong dream that never faded. She found one such place, and to the astonishment of the real estate broker, signed the sales agreement immediately and paid cash by way of a wire transfer.
After signing the documents, she overheard the hotshot Sacramento real estate broker boast to someone in another office, “Some wealthy middle-aged blonde woman—a real looker outa’ Puerto Rico—just bought that damnable eyesore down along the river.” Sara wasn’t offended and smiled secretly. She knew exactly how she would refurbish the place.
Next, Sara contacted her alma mater, Rio Vista High School, about class reunions. If anyone remembered her, it was probably as a quiet, backward girl with stringy blond hair. Through high school records was how she located Daphine Whelan, her best friend back then.
“You know what they say about that house,” Daphine had warned over the phone.
“The real estate agent filled me in,” Sara said. “I don’t believe most of it.”
Daphine’s mood was upbeat, knowing her childhood friend was back in town. But her conversations about that house were somber. “Just be careful, okay? That maniac is still on the loose and the previous owner of your house is still missing.”
Did you see the comment the real estate broker made about Sara. We begin to know that she is quite a “looker.”
A great way to build characterization is through the eyes and perceptions of other story people.
We also begin to see characterization building for other story people.
More “fleshing out” happens in the next sections, including the setting where a lot of the story takes place – the decrepit old Victorian known as Talbot House.
Most of the sketchy information about the house seemed mixed with rumors and gossip. The only solid information came from the real estate agent. He disclosed that Orson and Esmerelda Talbot were the second owners of the dilapidated Victorian known as Talbot House. The original owners built the house in 1928. The house was a copy of a real Victorian and not registered with any historical society. The Talbots wished to leave congested city life in the San Francisco Bay Area. 1928 was the year Orson Talbot was born, and they interpreted it as an omen to buy. Soon afterwards, Mr. Talbot went missing.
“Daph,” Sara remembered saying. “Ramshackle or not, I’ve got my dream house and nothing’s going to keep me away. Just wait till you see what I do with it.”
Daphine’s silence through the phone seemed more like a warning.
I was pleased with myself when I wrote the next passage. Further characterization happens for both Sara and her sister, Starla. Both have their physical attributes covered in one paragraph. However, other parts of the story further describe all the characters.
Notice, too, that Sara has troubling memories of her mother and father. No additional characterization of these two is mentioned here because this is simply more foreshadowing.
A writer must know not only that something must be included, but where. So details to be included in each chapter must be chosen wisely. Not all detail can, and shouldn't, be stuffed into the first chapter.
Though her hands remained on the keyboard, Sara found herself staring at her little sister’s photos hanging on the wall. Little Starla was long dead but Sara always found a measure of peace just seeing her sister’s face. Many times Sara had placed photos from her youth next to Starla’s pictures. Had they been born closer together in years, they could have passed for twins.
“I miss your laughter,” Sara said to the close-up of Starla’s face. She wondered if the resemblance would have remained as the years passed. Would Starla’s sunny blond hair have stayed that way, as hers had? Would Starla have had the same slender figure, been tall, and offered a chance to do some modeling, as she had? Would the sparkle in her large baby blue eyes have remained too? Or would it have diminished once Starla understood about their parents?
The thought of her parents depressed her. Sara needed to put the past behind and focus on the exciting new life she had started.
And what is a story without a little romance? Well, maybe not just a little, maybe hot romance to spice it up and make us feel life is worth living, even in the midst of a thriller novel about a serial killer.
Characterization happens at any times in any scene. Humans are multi-faceted and it's been my experience that I cannot write a cut and dry story. All people have complicated personalities and characterization must show some of that.
She thought about the man she had recently seen on several occasions in a restaurant in Sacramento. The first time, he and his group sat in the booth behind her where she sat alone. His voice was distinct but not boisterous. He spoke of an older brother who had taught him to ride a bicycle and who, long ago, would teach him to ride a motorcycle after the brother returned from Vietnam. The man spoke of his sister as if she were a financial genius. He spoke lovingly of his siblings. Clearly, family meant everything to him. Sara tried not to eavesdrop and felt guilty listening but his family seemed the kind she could only dream of.
Their group departed ahead of her. As they passed her booth, the man turned and looked her straight in the eyes. He had short dark wavy hair and deep-set brooding eyes that were nothing short of blue-topaz sparklers! His and her eyes locked into the kind of stare that made a connection long before words were spoken. In fact, he slowed his pace, his intensity softened, till he finally smiled and his curiously sad expression melted.
Sara had gone back to that restaurant several times and finally saw the man leaving with a couple of other men. Her timing seemed off. On another occasion, she had walked out of the restaurant just as they walked in.
“Hello there,” the man with the blue-topaz eyes had said.
“Hello,” Sara said. All she could do was walk away because making an excuse to go back inside seemed contrived.
On yet another of her jaunts to shop in Sacramento, that same man walked down the street with others. While she sat in her car at the light and wondered how they might meet, he walked into a building on the next block. As she drove past, she saw it was a building housing government agencies. She wondered about the man until she realized she was quite taken with him. Or was it his love of family?
“The next time I see him at that restaurant,” she said out loud in her car, “I’m going to start a conversation.”
But she had not seen him in the three weeks since. Sara knew she had to overcome her shyness about meeting men. Some part of her childhood programming still wanted her to believe she didn’t measure up. She knew it was wrong to think that way and vowed this was another flawed aspect of her personality that she would overcome. It was never too late to change and she really did wish to find a new love one day.
The area setting is further enhanced. Too, additional characterization is offered for Sara, but especially for the character, Buck, whose comments reflect a feeling of urgency and caution.
Later, after breaking herself away from the computer and going to bed, Sara became consumed with thoughts of remains being found. The roads were greatly improved since she was last in the area. The entire Sacramento and Delta regions could be covered by auto in little time. If the killer left Sacramento, he could have gone anywhere. She rolled over and tried to clear her mind and visualize the old house already finished and decorated. The wind gusted and the back part of the house creaked. It was a sound with which she had become familiar.
She snuggled down and gave thanks for flannel pajamas, something unnecessary in the Caribbean. Then she couldn’t get to sleep. She should stop reading the articles about the madman on the loose. She should simply be attentive to her surroundings like everyone else in the Delta had learned to be.
Unable to doze off, she threw back the covers and was about to leave her bedroom when she realized that all the windows were uncovered. With the old heating system not yet working, little to no condensation accumulated on the windowpanes. With no window coverings to hide anyone inside, she wasn’t about to throw on the lights and expose herself like a captive fish in a goldfish bowl.
“Should have left the windows boarded up,” she said, whispering to herself. Her bedroom and bath were the only rooms where temporary curtains hung. The thought flickered through her mind that she should have some sort of protection close by. A butcher knife lay in the dish rack where she had left it to dry. She also found the hammer she left in the pantry while installing additional shelving.
She felt isolated, sleeping alone in a monstrous four-level, forty-five hundred square foot house, where sounds reverberated off the walls of the empty rooms. Finally, she sat down again on her bed and made sure her cell phone was still on the nightstand.
She picked up the phone, hesitated, then punched the code, and waited till someone answered. “Buck, it’s me, Sara.”
A yawn came through the phone. “It’s after midnight,” he said. “This retired person doesn’t stay up working late like you do.”
She had stayed briefly with friends Buck and Linette till escrow closed. She sighed. “Buck, I just read more about that psychopath and now I can’t get to sleep. I thought if you guys were still awake, I’d come over and…”
“Don’t you dare go outside in the middle of the night!”
“So you think that guy could be in this area?”
“I just want you to be safe. Learn to stay indoors at night when you’re alone.”
“I-I guess I’m over-reacting.”
“You have a weapon?” he asked, through another yawn.
“Yeah,” she said, eyeing the knife and hammer lying beside her on the bed. ‘I’ll be okay.”
By the end of the first chapter, we have a good idea about the curious nature in the characterization of Sara and how she finds comfort.
The chapter ends, as all chapters should end, with a cliff hanger.
Or was it her imagination?
What would she do if someone tried to get in?
Would the knife and hammer be enough to protect her against who knows what?
Does her characterization tell you about her ability to disbelieve things could happen to her as well, and set you up to hope nothing does?
Finally back in bed, the silence was deafening. How could she even think about letting someone scare her out of her house? To help her relax, as she often did, she thought of innocent little Starla, who loved to sing. Decades earlier, Starla had heard the obscure theme song from the 1960 movie, Circus of Horrors, on the radio. Sara imagined hearing Starla’s sweet voice singing, “…when you feel there is no one to guide you…look for a star.”
Sara shivered and it wasn’t from the old house having no heat. “I hope I can sleep tonight,” she said softly. She sighed and glanced at the knife and hammer lying on the nightstand, strategically placed for a quick grab.
While we’re looking at characterization, let’s recap some of the points we learned from this first chapter.
~ She (and the reader) learns about the elusive psychopath.
~ Sara hears footsteps around her house late at night, and Buck’s comment about not going out alone at night raises her fright level. It’s really not what she came home to be a part of.
~ We are introduced to Sara’s deceased sister, Starla, whose memory is a motivating force in Sara’s life.
~ We learn that Sara has questionable and troubling memories of her parents.
All of these main points build characterization for each of the story people.
But, of course, many more people show up as the story progresses and provides great exercises with characterization.
In building characterization, be sure to create plausible people. Unless you’re writing Sci-Fi or fantasy, your story people need to be folks the reader can relate to.
That is not a difficult as it might seem. Characterization can build from personality aspects you find in various people. We write what we know.
Of course, you wouldn't put that person into your story. You would use only that aspect of their personality to combine with whatever else you've created for the characterization of a fictitious other.
Any and all personality quirks and habits we come across in our lives are fodder for characterization of our story people.
River Bones Media Room (with Photos)