Self-Editing Series: 6 Elements of Characterization

Characters are a pinnacle of storytelling. The way writers can bring them to life on a page is fascinating! They are also one of the hardest parts of storytelling to get right.

Characters are a deep subject that I could go on for multiple posts about, but for this purpose, I’m going to delve into Characters for shorter fiction. When you are writing a novel, you have much more space and time to break down different aspects of characterization to slowly breathe life into your characters. Shorter fiction does not have that luxury or the writer has risked dull characters and with that a dull story.

Our focus will be the protagonist (the main character) of your story. However, feel free to have your extra files with the backstories of your side characters fleshed out in more detail. The more you know your character, the better you can write them!

For teaching purposes, I’m going to be using this short story snippet to help illustrate ways to apply the six elements. Below is the original copy. We’ll take another look at the end to see how all of the changes look on the page.

Please note: There are plenty of other aspects of editing that could be adjusted, but I am only going to be looking at this snippet for elements of Character. 

Original Version: First Draft

6 Elements of Character:

1) Goal

A character without a goal has nothing for the story to grab onto. They simply have no stakes in the story or a purpose if they do not have a want that means something to them. Some may even suggest that, without a goal, you simply have no story.

For self-editing, this comes into play when you look back through each scene.

Did your character have a goal?

If not, the scene may need to be revised or rewritten. All scenes should involve a character trying to achieve a goal on some level.

Does the goal come across strongly?

Short stories have ONE major goal, and the entire story is about reaching it. Every small scene level goal will be a step closer to the major one. If a scene or two seems out of place with the major goal, revise or cut it for a stronger manuscript.

Opening scenes may be an exception depending on the manuscript. Many characters start out with their ‘normal’ world for a reason, with the story catalyst not having happened yet that gives them the story goal.

To see this in action, we’ll take the original first draft at the top of the post and we’ll add notes to help make it stronger.

Below, you may notice the story snippet has gotten a bit longer. Adding in a motivation involved reworking the first chunk of the story to include the ‘why’ and gave the character a definable goal.

2) Strengths and Skills

A character should know how to do things and have a way of handling their environment. There are always exceptions to this, but more often than not, your character will have some type of strength or skill that helps define them. It could be the reason they work in a certain field, or why they are needed for the story.

Does your character have a strength?

Strength is internal. Example characteristics: confident, intelligent, determined or charming.

Did they use it?

They should always use their strength. It is integral to the way a character acts and reacts. A confident character will not approach a situation the same way as an intelligent one.

If your character has more than one strength, the key is in how you write them. A purely confident character may just trust themselves to barge into a situation. However, an intelligent and confident character could break down their adversaries before having a proper plan and then barge into the situation confident that they have the upper hand.

It helps to write out character strengths because it goes hand-in-hand with their flaw.

Does your character have a skill?

They could be good thieves, liars, mages. Or perhaps they have a degree in archeology or mortuary science.

Did they use it?

Sometimes a skill is just to get the character into a certain setting for tone/mood. Maybe you needed someone who could logically get trapped in a zoo at night, or perhaps you needed someone who could fight that monster plaguing the village on the other side of town.

When writing short stories, it’s important that skills apply to the story. We don’t need to know that the protagonist is good at baseball unless those particular skills are going to come into play in the story, or explain why they are in a particular setting.

If you notice you piled on strengths, or gave your character two-too-many talents, cut them down in revisions to only the necessary ones. Relevancy is key!

As you can see in my mark-up below, the character skills weren’t particularly strong, so I’ve made notes to add more in the skills category.

Below is the edited version with a punch given to the protagonist’s skills.

3) Flaws

If the goal is the starting issue with developing characters, I think flaws come in a close second. Most authors don’t have an issue at all with giving their character strengths and skills that can help them. Flaws, however, are more complex and are an important part of creating a relatable character. They are the key to not writing a Mary Sue/Gary Stu typology (aka: bland character).

Readers want to cheer for your characters, but when characters are too perfect (no flaws), there’s isn’t much to cheer about. The character will succeed, and readers won’t have the ‘but what if…’ feeling they get with a successful page turner. Therefore, it’s important to build in natural character flaws for the story.

Does your character have the right flaw?

Do not simply google flaws because you can’t think of where your character falls short and toss them into the story devil-may-care. Their flaw may also be the result of a wound-causing event that happened earlier in their life; though, the full exploration of that is normally found within longer fiction like novellas and novels. If you are writing a short story, it may not be imperative for the reader to know why the character has the flaw that they do, just that it exists.

A proper flaw will compliment your character’s strength. It is a mirror of their strength. Some examples of this tension and conflict in a character are:

Confident → Arrogant or Presumptuous

Intelligent → Lacking Empathy or Patience

Determined → Stubborn or Aggressive

Charming → Manipulative or Non-committal

When reading back over your manuscript, did you stay consistent with your character’s flaw? Humans on the whole have to be pushed to change, and even then, it does not come easy.

An introverted, low confident character does not have to become extroverted and filled with confidence. You can have confident introverts and low-confidence extroverts.

If your character’s flaw properly compliments their strength, that’s great! If not, reassess the strengths you’ve given to your character and find their flaw. Writing it down will help as you go through revisions to be sure you are sticking to your established characterization.

Let’s take another look at our developing snippet for character flaws:

As you can see in the mark up, the character actually had a conflict with her flaw description that needed to be addressed. Let’s see how that looks when her flaw is smoothed out:

4) Internal Conflict

Hand-in-hand with strengths and flaws, the internal conflict your character goes through is how they are going to handle their flaw — and their coming struggles. Character’s handle flaws through one of three ways: Positive, Negative, and Flat.

  • Positive Arc: The character will overcome their flaw within the story time-frame and become a better version of themselves.
  • Negative Arc: The character will not overcome their flaw within the story time-frame and will become a worse version of themselves.
  • Flat Arc: The character will not change within the story time-frame.

Does your character have internal conflict?

Did you capture their struggle on the page? Change is difficult. It requires a lot of self-realization. Sometimes people do not change for the better, and sometimes they don’t change at all. Characters are no different.

Consequences are key here. Your character should have to make hard choices. If a choice is too easy or too simple, you may be missing conflict, or have chosen the wrong one for the story. Therefore, choosing the right flaw that creates conflict is important. The character has to have something to rise against, or succumb to.

If you have written a flat character arc, the conflict will take place outside of the character, with them struggling to understanding their world.

Dig a little deeper into a character’s internal conflict by asking what the character is afraid of. A fear can help drive their internal conflict as much as a flaw can, particularly if they are in a position where they have to overcome it. The reader then gets to see the character fight through that fear on the page and not only will relate to them but will also continue to cheer for them.

Does your character have a fear?

Fears can be negative or positive in nature. For example: fear of the dark and death, or fear of success at work (because they don’t feel deserving of it).

Go back through your manuscript and make sure that you’ve given them chances to both show it overcome it.

Remember: Fears should not be sprinkled on like bad flaws (just for the sake of it). Fears in fiction should be relevant. If your character is afraid of spiders, readers will expect that that fear comes into play in the story; otherwise, there was no reason for it. Whether they are a child who has to pass through empty spider webs, or a burly man about to take on a kaiju-sized arachnid, the fear must be relevant to both the external conflict within the story.

In the example below, after reading through the snippet, there was a huge issue found with characterization. The internal conflict never made it onto the page!

Below you’ll notice that the word count went up again as the character was given some internal struggle to make their journey harder, and drive their character arc forward.

5) External Conflict:

Yes, external conflict is a part of your character and your story. The external conflict needs to challenge your character’s specific strengths and flaws. It needs to dig deep and make the inner conflict come to life.

Do you have external conflict in your manuscript?

Most writers can answer yes to this one. There is almost always something going on around the protagonist. An outside force that acts as a catalyst for change, or a challenge. This may be an event or character. Either way, it is the thing outside your character that they will overcome, or succumb to.

Tip: This may be an actual person, a tornado, or a monster.

Ideally, the external conflict wants the opposite goal of the character, or at least a darker path to achieve the same goal.

To the earlier tip: A tornado doesn’t exactly ‘want’ anything, but its path of destruction could still stand in the protagonist’s way.

Does the external conflict challenge your character’s internal conflict?

For the internal conflict to work, the external conflict needs to challenge and push the character to make hard decisions. Simple choices are just that, easy and lacking in tension.

Tension and conflict, like flaws, should not be randomly selected and sprinkled on. There should be a reason for each external conflict to exist because it’s going to push back against the character in a way that keeps the reader enraptured by the character and their story.

Technically, our snippet had external conflict set up from the start, but let’s look closer to see if there are ways to make that conflict stronger.

After reevaluating, a bird in a tree wasn’t a particularly strong connection to the outside conflict, nor did it set up what could or was going to happen next. Instead, we need to make things harder for the protagonist.

In the sample below, you can see how we knocked her out of the tree.

6) Chemistry

This joyous little factor is about as abstract as they come on the surface level. Chemistry is not just romance. Many times people see the word ‘chemistry’ and automatically think two people must be falling in love, but it’s not. It is the special ‘it’ factor that connects the reader to your characters and the main character to other characters, while also driving the reader to keep reading.

Chemistry is when you are excited for two characters to face off on the page because their interactions are so entertaining or downright horrifying. Maybe they are protagonists/villains, maybe they are best friends. They demand attention when they are in a scene.

It is relatability — not likability — that makes the reader come back to your character.

Special Tip: You can help amp up the chemistry between your character and the reader by not giving the reader a filter or veil they have to dig through to get to the raw emotion of your story. Your character is the catalyst to why the reader stays with them, so be sure you are following the adage of Showing vs Telling (when it applies).

At this point, I’ve already edited out most of the filter words and have the elements a bit stronger than they were at the beginning. Of course, those may change a bit more through the editing process. Editing is what gives you a ‘living’ draft, in that, anything is subject to change while you are bringing it closer to what you want it to be.

Let’s look at the original snippet one more time, just to refresh what we started with. This sample sits at 296 words.

By looking at Elements of character alone (not even addressing deep grammar and line editing) the newest draft of this scene sits at 717 words, and the characterization comes through more clearly than our original.

Character creation?

You’ll note above that I did not mention some elements of character creation, such as appearance or the debate over whether or not to answer questionnaires. If you are in the self-editing stage, creation would have been done already. So it’s not an appropriate editing step.

What’s next week’s topic?

Plot, and thus story, is extremely important to creating a page turner. Plot holes, then, are the ruin of an otherwise interesting story. So how do you find and edit out those sneaky plot holes and story inconsistencies? Find out next week when we dive into Plot. Don’t miss it!

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