Monday, April 4, 2016

Elizabeth George: Characterization is the Most Important Element in Fiction



In Write Away, Elizabeth George presents her method for writing fiction. Here I will discuss her approach to creating characters.

First, though, she has an idea for what her novel will be about and expands that idea as much as possible to have a solid understanding of what the story line is.

Once she has a good idea for her novel, the next thing she does is to begin developing her characters. Without a thorough understanding of her characters, she wouldn’t know where to start writing the story. Characters are the impetus for other aspects of the novel. It’s also through understanding her characters that she develops much of her plot and subplots.

Character Analysis

Her character analysis can start anywhere, with any piece of information about a character. She writes in stream-of-consciousness fashion about each and every character who might appear in the novel. In the analysis, she wants to present everything she can about the character, but she is mainly concerned with five pieces of information:

1)      The character’s CORE NEED.  This a need that originates deep within a person and is the force that drives a person to do the things he does. The need is so important to a person that, when it is thwarted, it can cause a pathological reaction, which leads to the second important piece of information about a character,

2)      The character’s PATHOLOGICAL MANUEVER. This is what the character does under stress, how he reacts when his core need is being denied or interfered with. It displays as some of the negative ways of coping, such as becoming obsessive or hysterical.

3)      The character’s SEXUALITY. She wants to know what his attitude to sex is and his sexual history. This may or may not show up in the story, but it’s important to know.

4)      A PAST EVENT in the character’s life that has had a significant influence on him. Again, this may not show up in the story, but it tells a great deal about the character and why he is the way he is.

5)      WHAT THE CHARACTER WANTS IN THE STORY. That is, what the character wants throughout the story and what the character wants in each individual scene. Of course, this is influenced by the previous four pieces of information about the character. What a character wants isn’t always clear cut or derived from one basic need. It can result from multiple factors. And it may not be directly expressed.

Knowing all of this about each character suggests subplots and many directions a story may take. It can lead to sources of conflict and plot development. This isn’t formulaic writing, it’s organic, and can lead to many surprises. I think this approach to characterization is well worth exploring.

What about you? Do you have a specialized approach to creating characters?


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a nice list of what to consider when developing characters. I also recommend a good book by David Corbett, The Art of Character. For my own part, I don't do a lot to develop my characters ahead of time. I usually start with a character that grabs my imagination and a problem bugging them before I start writing, and then as they come clearer, along with other characters around them, I work out the details. The only time I ever sat down and worked out character details before writing the book -- well, I didn't write the book. I still have the character lists, but somehow those lists didn't make the characters come alive for me. Everyone's process is different, I guess.

Richard Hughes said...

Elizabeth, Actually, I write the same way you do. I learn more and more about my characters as I work on the story. But, it can lead to revising a lot.

Denise Covey said...

Hi Richard! Lovely to see this post! I love Elizabeth George's Write Away. And I love how you've distilled what she's said about character development. I start off not knowing much about them, then filling in the blanks by freewriting.

Richard Hughes said...

Denise, a lot of writers do a lot of planning of their stories before they begin writing. It seems logical, but truthfully it hasn't worked well for me. But I keep trying it out. Sometimes, I just have to start writing and see where it goes.

Tanya Lynne Reimer said...

Thanks for sharing these fundamental parts of a character. We can add them in before we write, or after in a revision. I prefer doing so in a revision where I have more control. When I draft, I let the characters find themselves. Like you point out, it means longer revisions.

Richard Hughes said...

Hi, Tanya, yep. It's almost like working from the inside out instead of the outside in.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Richard, I like Elizabeth's approach to creating characters. I am currently plotting my first YA book. I will use her tips to help me develop my characters and subplots. Thanks Elizabeth and Richard.

Richard Hughes said...

You're welcome, Rachna. I hope it proves helpful.

Ann Best said...

Hi, Richard. You've changed the look of your blog since I was last here, which was unfortunately quite a well ago. So this may not be new, but I like it. And appreciate what you've posted about character analysis. I think no matter what approach you take as a writer, there will always be revisions, sometimes more than others. Many writers have said that once they began delving into their characters, they start taking charge of the story. I recall that happening once in my life, way way back when I was trying to write fiction.

How is YOUR fiction writing coming along? Are you doing more painting still than writing? Hope all is well with you and your family.

Ann @

Richard Hughes said...

Hi, Anne, I've been doing more writing than painting lately.
I was looking at your blog the other day. Looks like things are going well for you. Thank you for commenting.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good things to add to my list. I also focus on the character's strengths and weaknesses. Knowing all of that helps before writing the story. Actually, I don't know how people write stories without knowing those details.

Richard Hughes said...

Hi, Alex, some of us pantsers have to figure it out as we go along. It seems logical that the more you know about characters before writing the story the better off you are.