An uncomplicated topic that may not even warrant a separate blog post, characterization is the writer’s efforts to take a character from concept to three-dimensional human actor (or non-human, if that fits). It will encompass everything from height, weight, and coloring to speech mannerisms, gender attitudes, time and place of birth, and much more. All that the character shows to the reader (and to fellow actors in the story/plot) is part of characterization. So it may not be complicated, but it’s beginning to sound complex.
Writers don’t invent characters from thin air. We find them in the endless tides of humans whom we see, watch, listen to, love, hate, marry, divorce, save, kill off, and read about day after day. Characterization is the set of attributes, the drivers of behavior, that make or break that character for the role a story needs in order to move forward. The character fits the role because of the potential he or she has to offer, and characterization is how that potential manifests, how and when the character displays the traits for which the story or plot picked him or her.
Yes, it sounds obscure to say a story picks a character, but that’s often real life. Real life gives rise to circumstances, perhaps with no rhyme or reason, no warning—a storm, an earthquake, an emotional crisis, a crime-in-the-making, a tragic death, a deal gone sour, a chance encounter, a jealous rage. Someone falls into that moment, those circumstances, and something happens. Something happens is the beginning of all stories and the basis for all plots, in real life and in fiction. And very often that moment picks the person, not vice versa.
This doesn’t mean that characters show up unbidden on a writer’s doorstep. The writer has to go out and find him/her from among the writer’s experiences, observations, and realistic imaginings (or fantasies, in the case of some fiction). The characters will rarely be ready-made. The writer has to mine them from experience, unearth a collection of attributes from real life that can be combined to form the person whom this story is looking for.
That’s characterization—how Alex Corlett responds to his encounter with Anita after so many years apart; how Benelli handles her weapon when facing down Delmore Bates; how Nigel Hawkins reacts to Peter Innes’s premature order for Hawkins to return to New Zealand. These characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions are, in each case, part of the entire person, part of the makeup of where they come from, how they were raised, and how they behave under stress. Characterization is that part of the writer’s job, his craft, if you will, to re-create on the page a whole human being with the motivations and capability to play the role the story requires in order to mirror real life.