Characterisation. Theory and Practice


The class about characterization started with a writing exercise. The questions we wanted to answer regarded characters in the story. How do you make a character deep? How can the reader be sympathetic to the character? Sympathy and depth are very important when we talk about characters. Professor Litt wanted us to do a writing exercise to start thinking about these matters. The scene is set in a space of two rooms. It is a wedding reception. There is one room with food and drinks, the other is a sort of mini-disco, with a DJ. The dancefloor is empty. You can choose if your character is female or male. Write in the present tense.

Jesse is a bit drunk. It’s fine, since he’s an old friend of the couple and he doesn’t have to do anything special except from being happy for his friends, which means eating as much as he can and getting drunk. They were in high school together, and he is the boyfriend of the bride’s cousin, which is probably the reason why he was invited to the wedding. She’s not in the DJ room. Everyone is eating in the other room, and he’s alone on the dancefloor. He’s wondering if he could go back and grab another of those delicious lemon tarts, when the DJ puts on Dancing Queen by Abba. He starts dancing, a bit awkwardly, by himself. Then he turns around to see if anybody’s watching him, and sees an elegant old lady standing in the doorway. She asks kindly to the DJ to turn down the volume because the bride is going to make a speech in the food room, but Jesse stops her and starts telling her that he had an affair at a school dance with the bride as they were playing exactly that song. Jesse goes on and tells her details like puring Jagermeister shots in her belly in the gym toilet, but what he does not know is that he’s talking to the mother of the groom, who he has never met before.

So we were free to decide what was the gender, age and relation to the couple of our character. Profesor Litt asked us which one of these elements we put first – I put gender and relation before, and there’s no hints about the age. After that, Professor Litt wanted us to describe in just one sentence the fingernails of our character.

Jesse’s fingernails are reasonably short, but one is broken (the index) since he tried to open a beer with his bare hands (he was drunk). 


I liked how one of my classmates asked to Professor Litt if he could say that his character’s fingernails were simply unremarkable but the Professor told him that he couldn’t since the novelist would find a good way to say it. After that, he told us to say what our character’s fingernails smell of, in single words.

Jesse’s fingernails smell of beer and blood.

The exercise he made us do was very interesting. He wanted some of us to read aloud the reaction that our character had to the DJ putting on Dancing Queen, and the other should try to say how were his/her fingernails. Then he made the ones who read the reaction say if the description of the fingernails was similar. And then he made some other people in class do the opposite: they read the description of the fingernails, and then we had to say what he/she had done when the DJ had put on the song. It was very interesting because it showed how different the perspectives can be. Also, he told us that the characters got more interesting if there was a contrast between their action and their appearance.

Amanda and Keith read the description of the character and we had to write one or two sentences about his fingernails. I said that he seemed messy and clumsy, so his fingernails were probably one different from the other, and they smelled of food. When I told the Professor, he told me ot be more specific. What kind of food? I answered tarts. He asked me what kind of tarts. I said cucumber and salmon tarts. He liked my answer and told me that that was the way in which you tell a story. It’s not simply “food”. It’s cucumber and salmon tarts. Typical of weddings. Very detailed. Good.


When we had to say what kind of reaction Rob and LaAerial character had by knowing only the description of his fingernails, I knew something because I had overheard their conversation about it – he would scream “This is the best song ever!” to Dancing Queen. I kept on writing and said that he had probably stolen the bride’s boquet and started giving out flowers to any lady in the room calling her “dancing queen”.

This exercise is about putting a character in the situation. What does they do? How do they act? What is their reaction? The physical description is given through details and here is represented by the fingernails. There also is a choice, which is represented by Dancing Queen (but it could also be someone throwing a handgranade in the room, which leads to other different kind of actions of course). So our characters are depicted by actions (choices) and physical description (details). It is always said that it is better to show, not tell, so you wouldn’t say “he was nice”, but show how nice a character is. Details can confirm the actions as names can fit the actions of the characters, but that would make characters a bit flat. To give a depth to characters, it is important to create a gap, a contradiction. For example, you would expect that someone who has rainbow-painted fingernails would dance to Dancing Queen – but what if they don’t dance? Isn’t it interesting?



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