A while back I was reading a new book, a sturdy volume of historical fiction set in the first century A.D., and I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had hoped. The plot had quite a bit of action, the details were thoroughly researched, and fiction meshed seamlessly with historical fact. Overall I thought the author had done an excellent job of putting together what could not have been a simple project. So what was wrong? In spite of all this, the book still seemed dry to me—but why?
About two hundred and fifty pages later, I suddenly realized that I didn’t really know any of the characters. Some were portrayed as positive and others negative, advancing the plot, but they didn’t seem like real people to me, just names. Because they didn’t seem real, none of the characters attracted much of my sympathies, and since I didn’t sympathize much with the characters, I didn’t really care about the outcome of the plot.
Conflict is crucial, but insufficient characterization at best will weaken it and at worst will render it ineffectual.
Now, some of this does depend on the reader. For example, we have a book series that has a very sympathetic set of central characters but for the most part doesn’t have a strong central conflict. I like the books; my brother thinks they are bland. We have another series with plenty of action, conflict, edge-of-your seat adventure and historical detail but not a lot of characterization. My brother thinks they are wonderful; I find them dry.
Here is an example: You are reading a book. In this book, Character A and Character B are competing against each other in a race. It is a 400-meter foot race, and both characters have been training hard for a long time in preparation. Many spectators are watching, and the victor will receive a $1,000 prize. At last the big day has arrived, and each hopes that he will be the winner. After warming up, the runners take their places. The starting gun fires, and they are off.
Who do you hope will win?
Now, it’s just possible that you are cheering for the first racer because your name is Andrew Alexander Anderson and you always sympathize with anyone whose name begins with “A.” Or it is possible that you are rooting for Character B because “B” is generally considered to be not as “stellar” of a letter as “A”, and you like to encourage the underdog. My guess, though, is that with the information given, most readers will not have much preference regarding the outcome of the race. Why?
Because, quite simply, I haven’t given you a reason to care.
So what exactly does characterization do for a story? Well, for starters, it makes the characters seem more real and believable–like people, rather than just names. Developing a character gives the author opportunity to create and direct reader sympathy, which in turn causes the reader to care about the characters and the outcome. And if the reader cares about the outcome, then the author has a platform from which to establish a theme for the reader to take away.
You have probably heard it said that history is just dates and dead people. One of the reasons history may seem dull to some people (myself included, I will confess) is a lack of characterization. The purpose of history is simply to record the facts; the purpose of a story is to engage and affect the reader. This is where character makes the difference: bringing the facts to life.
Here is another example. You are reading the book Racetrack by Kinsey M. Rockett. (No, I haven’t actually written a book by that title, but let’s suppose that I have.) The primary characters are Sam and Joe, both 18 years old, and they are both competing in a 400-meter footrace. It is a big race with crowds of spectators watching and a $1,000 reward awaiting the winner.
Sam has been training long and hard for this race. A born athlete, he has carried the day on both the track and the sports field all through school, and he is all set to enter college on a full sport scholarship. The 400-meter is not an easy race, but Sam is confident in his abilities. Actually, he doesn’t even consider that he might lose. He looks forward to the race’s outcome—not just the cash reward, but also the honor and recognition which he is sure to receive. Winning is not a new thing for him, but the praise of man has never lost its charm.
Joe has also been training for this race for quite some time. He has always liked to be active, and although a car accident at the age of nine left one of his legs shorter than the other, running is still one of his favorite hobbies. Through much patience, persistence, and hard work, he has learned how to work around his physical limitations and has become a good runner, better than he will admit. Most of the time he runs simply because he likes to, but today he wants very badly to win this race. Three months ago Joe’s father was laid off his job; he has been unable to find more work, and the family now lacks the finances to pay their upcoming rent. Joe hopes to win the race so that he can give the prize money to his family.
Now who do you want to win?
Characterization makes a difference, doesn’t it? The first example was history—an objective reporting of the facts. The second example, however, was the beginning of a story. Both scenarios are drawn from the same information, but the purposes are different. My guess is that now, having a better understanding of the characters, you have developed a preference regarding the outcome of this race. Why?
Because now you have a reason.