Novel Diagnosis–Characters


Novel Diagnosis Series


Please read the Novel Diagnosis–Introduction about competencies.

Characters are the lifeblood of a novel. Populating your novel with characters who have a strong inner life, a unique voice and a life full of conflict is important.


Time required: about 5-10 minutes.

Look only at the first five pages of your manuscript, or about 1000 words. From these pages–what you’ve actually written there, not what you meant to write–record everything you know about the characters.

Note: Sometimes, the first chapter doesn’t include the main character. Think about the first chapter of Holes, by Louis Sachar, which starts with a chapter about lizards. If this is the case in your novel, then use the first five pages in which the main character does appear.

STOP. Really. Go to your mss. Read the first five pages and then turn over page five. On the back of the page, write everything you know about your character. When you’ve done that, then come back and read the rest!

Example of Good Characterization
This is what I know about Turner Buckminister from the first two published pages of the Newbery Honor book, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster BoyLizzie Bright and Buckminister’s Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt:

Name: Turner Buckminster.
Fact: Has just moved to Phippsburg, Maine
Character trait: He’s a person who notices details of setting from salty waves to smell of pines to sound of bouys to houses in town
Attitude: He doesn’t like Phippsburg
Fact: He’s a minister’s son
Attitude: He’s trying to pretend that it doesn’t matter to him that he’s a minister’s son
Event: The family’s arrival in Phippsburg was an event the town celebrated with banners, hymns, cheers, enthusiasm and a picnic.
Fact: His parents received enthusiastic greeting, but he was almost ignored
Attitude: Turner thinks the Maine language is very different from Boston language
Attitude: Turner wants to “light out for the territories” instead of facing this new environment
Tone: Straightforward, with a hint of martyrdom.

After just two pages, we know setting, family, attitudes, conflict, tone. If we went on for the equivalent of five manuscript pages, the characterization is just as sharp and specific and the conflict develops into a full scene that ends in the first “disaster” for poor Turner.

What I often see in the first five pages of a first draft might read like this instead.
Name: Turner Buckminster
Fact: Had just moved to Phippsburg, Maine
Fact: He’s a minister’s son
Event: His family is moving into a small house in Phippsburg, where his father will be the new minister.

What often happens in first drafts of novels is that we have bare facts and no attitudes, emotions, or conflict involving the main character. The writing is rather sterile and dry, uninvolved with the character’s point-of-view. Often, there is no conflict in these first pages; alternately, the conflict bashes us with violence, but the reader doesn’t care, because the action hasn’t been set up. Another common situation is we get all attitude, but nothing happens, there’s no scene; characters need actions to do and actions to which they can respond.

Self-Diagnosis of Characterization

Do we know anything about the character’s inner life?
Is the setting and conflict filtered through the character’s point-of-view?
Is the writing dry and generic, or is it rich in tone and attitude?
Do we know anything about the conflict of the story? Often, it’s just a hint of what’s to come, or it’s a small conflict that will build to the major conflict. But there should be something.

Rate Yourself on Characterization (see Introduction for explanation)
Unconsciously Incompetent
Consciously Incompetent
Consciously Competent
Unconsciously Competent

Suggestions: Repeat the evaluation for a section near the middle of the book. Maybe you need to throw out the first couple chapters because you were just learning who your characters are. If the results are just as dry and sterile, though, you’ll definitely want to study characterization.
Repeat the evaluation for the other main characters. Although the writing won’t be from their point-of-view, the reader should still get a sense of their attitudes and inner life.

Tomorrow: Novel Diagnosis–Scenes

1 Comment
  • Susan
    September 26, 2008

    I followed a link to your delightful blog from my SCBWI e-newsletter this week. I really like your posts! I’m going to put a link to you from my blog so I can find you more easily! And then I’m going to come back and read all of your diagnosis ideas. I’m just finishing up a WIP for the 5th book in my series and I SO need some fresh “infusion” like what you’re offering.

    I bet it’s nice to know that you are a LINK on a SCBWI e-mail, eh? :-)