Test Your Skill at Characterization

Ever wonder if you’re good at characterization in your novel or story? A good way to evaluate your skill in characterization is the Page 5 Test.

Page 5 Test: Are you Good at Characterization?

  1. Read the first five pages of your manuscript.
  2. Turn over page 5 and on the back, write everything you know about the main character from those first 5 pages.
  3. Things to record: name, age, location, family role and family details, likes, dislikes, fears, passions, ways of speaking, verbal tics, physical characteristics and tics.
    • No fair cheating and adding things that you KNOW about the character.
    • No fair looking back; the characterization must be sharp enough that the character starts to come to life and your reader doesn’t have to look up details.

Stop! Go do the Page 5 Test on your WIP Right NOW. Then come back

Good characterization or Poor Characterization?

Now it’s time to evaluate how well you did. Here are some things the Page 5 Test might reveal.

  1. Lack of information. Often basic information is missing in the first five pages. Often in 1st person novels, the character’s name isn’t given until way after page 5. I know I’m in this character’s head and I know there are stupid and cliched ways to work in a person’s name. But I want to know the character’s name, please. At least by the end of page 5.
  2. Boring. The character’s voice, whether the story is 1st or 3rd, is cliched and boring. Well, it’s hard to be honest about this! If you can’t be, hand the story to a friend or colleague. Lie, and tell them that this is a manuscript you’re reading for a friend; or tell them it’s a manuscript by whatever famous author you’d like to emulate. Ask your reader: after page 5, would you keep reading? Why or why not?
  3. http://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/2481209113/

  4. Shallow. Often, we know the character’s name, maybe their age, one or two things about family, their physical appearance (often in great detail) and. . .well, not much more. The characterization is shallow. We get a cartoon character like Betty Boop. We don’t know or care about this character yet. That translates into a reader shutting the book and not reading further!

Celebrate the Good, Fix the Needy Characterization

Not to worry. We all know that first drafts (and sometimes even 8th drafts are just . . . unspeakably bad. But that’s what the next draft is for.

First, NOTICE WHAT YOU DID WELL! I put that in caps, because otherwise, you’ll be like me and skip the good part. You did something well. Notice this! Celebrate.

But, also realize you have room for improvement. In the next draft, maybe you need to work on:

  • Voice. You may actually know this character inside and out, but just didn’t capture them on the page. In that case, you’ll need to experiment with voice for the character and narrative voice for your story.
  • Plot. While you’re doing experimenting for voice, you may need to try three or four different opening scenes, until you find one that allows for a rich development of both plot and character. Remember, we don’t need to have all the backstory up front; we don’t need to have all the character questions answered. What we need is to be intrigued by this person and want to know more. That’s why we read on.

Most people read a novel or story to become acquainted with people. Grab them up front with a great character and you’ll keep the reader for the long haul.

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