Creative Writing: Characterization

We like the age-old cliche’, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”, but in many ways, you can. Our body language, how we dress, and the words we use speak volumes. The other day I was listening to my daughter and one of her friends talk about their favorite colors. Her friend, an ambitious, adventurous athlete, likes bold colors. Red and black were her favorites. As I listened, I started to think about how I would feel if I wore red. I’ve done it before. I have a red dress that I used to wear whenever my husband and I would go out on a hot date. Why? Because it made me feel playful and daring. But for the most part, I wear tans and blues. In the summer, I like pastels and peaches. Already you’ve got me pegged, right? A conservative, predictable Missouri housewife who prefers long walks in the park to loud social events and afternoons in the mountains rather than a day at the mall. And for the most part, everything I do reiterates the same basic story. This story is retold every time I meet a friend in a restaurant, talk on the telephone, or attend a social function.

Have you ever watched people eat? How we present ourselves in a restaurant–even our food choices–can speak volumes! And effective characterization, the kind that melds the reader’s heart with your hero or heroine’s, allows the reader to discover, for themselves, what makes the hero tick. The other day I was reading a book that felt very much like a biography. The entire first two pages were spent telling me about the character–what he did, what his personality was like, what motivated him. I barely made it past the first page. My commitment to the author pushed me to page two, but as more information was dumped on me, I finally contacted the author and, politely, told them I was done.

Information dumps are for formal interviews, not relationships, and reading is very much an intimate relationship between the reader and the hero/heroine. For those of you who are married, think back to your first few dates with your spouse. Do you remember the way you used to latch on to every word, your mind working over time as you processed and categorized all the personality cues thrown your way? Do you remember the excitement of discovering for yourself, through intimate involvement, your spouse’s favorite song, restaurant, quirky fears, and deepest longings? Part of love is the continual unveiling of one heart to another, peppered with the anticipation of discovery. But what if there had been no need to discover? What if, upon the first date, your spouse had handed you a list of all their likes and dislikes, followed by a three page essay explaining all of the momentous events in their life? Wow, how romantic that would be–not! Information dumps are total passion-killers. In fiction and in life. So why kill your reader with monotonous prattle?

Assignment: Use decorations and items in a house to create a basic personality style. You can post this as a comment or you can send it to me via facebook (Jennifer Slattery using the following email to help narrow your search) or email ( Make sure to include “creative writing” in the subject line so your email doesn’t join my daily spam. Then we can all try to guess, using the comments section of this blog, what messages and personality traits you are trying to convey. Make sure to pop back with responses periodically so we can see how close our guesses were.

If you need a prompt:

Option one: A middle-aged risk taker. For this one, you could place him at an event that would display this aspect of his/her personality. How would a risk taker drive? What type of events would they participate in? How would they mentally process things? Would they prefer crowds or privacy? Nature scenes or bars? What type of clothing might they wear?

Option two: A rebellious teen who feels unloved. You could go far with this one. Perhaps she/he watches a friend’s family longingly, or is spurred to anger. Why does he/she feel unloved. Remember, don’t tell us, “Her parents never have time for her.” Show us by having her/him pop his head into his/her dad’s office only to be brushed aside. Or maybe they wake up to a post it note and an empty house.

Option three: A love-sick newly wed. What would a newly wed do on their first day of “married life”. I can remember how excited I was to dust our new apartment. I also loved the sound of my new name. Mrs. Slattery. I’d repeat it to myself again and again. Mrs. Slattery. Perhaps fresh cut flowers would be placed on the dinner table or furniture would be dusted twice.

Option four: Surprise us. <grin>


Despite the heavy cloud cover outside, the temperature in the quaint cottage was 78 degrees and climbing, the heat from the previous day still radiating from the walls. She’d turn the air on at noon, for an hour or so, just long enough to circulate the air before her son got here. Although she knew even a cool house wouldn’t keep his lips from flapping. For twenty years she’d made his bed, washed his laundry, scheduled his doctor’s appointments, and suddenly she was incapable?

Frustration seeped into her neck as she shuffled around her cluttered kitchen. Her knees crackled and popped in rebellion and a sharp prick shot through her hip. She gritted her teeth against the pain and deliberately picked up her pace. Her carefully arranged pills sat in the cupboard, untouched. Fish oil, Glucosamine, Plus-Sixty  Vitamins, and about five others she couldn’t remember, all placed in their daily compartments. She would have tossed them, pill holder and all, if it wasn’t for Jason. No, that would be the first thing he’d check. He’d probably count out each pill, too. To make sure she’d been following his instructions. Leila snorted. Instructions? More like daily demands, neatly typed and taped to her cupboard, fridge, and bathroom mirror. The important details were highlighted in bright orange ink. And they were reiterated, verbally, with every visit. Good thing he only came by twice a week.

*                                  *                                   *                                      *                                       *

Obviously, you are just getting to know Leila, but hopefully you can see she’s aging, that she lives alone, and that she longs for independence. I think you can also visualize some key character traits of her son. If I wanted to go further, I could describe her house in more detail, perhaps have her glance at a picture of her deceased husband or of a sun-bleached, slightly tattered photo of her feeding a toddler sitting in a high chair. Bills scattered across an old desk would alert the reader to financial problems. I could have used body shape, hair style and clothing to describe her further. I’d love to know how you visualize her at this point. I’m thinking your imagination started filling in details almost immediately.

Posted In

Leave a Reply