Newspaper folks talk a lot about getting people into stories. But all too often that means trotting out direct quotes from a variety of sources. True characterization taps an array of techniques that novelists and literary journalists use to bring human beings alive on the page.

Characterization, unfortunately, isn’t often taught in journalism school. Nor is it a staple of the writing culture in most newsrooms. Which is why the people in our stories are often talking heads, our version of what accomplished fiction writers dismiss as “cardboard characters.”

Mark Flint, a freelance writer, once created a stir on WriterL, Jon Franklin’s literary-journalism listserv, with a checklist useful for character-building. It comes, Mark said, from the late Con Sellers, a prolific novelist from Grants Pass, Ore. Sellers apparently picked it up, in some form, from somebody else.

Consider this list the next time you tackle a story in which character matters:

  • Name:
  • Age:
  • Height:
  • Weight:
  • Birth date:
  • Birthplace:
  • Color hair:
  • Color eyes:
  • Scars or Handicaps (Physical, Mental, Emotional):
  • Other distinguishing traits (Smells, voice, skin, hair, etc.):
  • Educational background:
  • Work experience:
  • Military service:
  • Marital Status (Include reasons):
  • Best friend:
  • Men/women friends:
  • Enemies (Include why):
  • Parents (Who? Where? Alive? Relationship?):
  • Present problem:
  • Greatest fear:
  • How will problem get worse?
  • Strongest character traits:
  • Weakest character traits:
  • Sees self as:
  • Is seen by others as:
  • Sense of humor:
  • Basic nature:
  • Ambitions:
  • Philosophy of life (Include how it came to be):
  • Hobbies:
  • Preferred type of music, art, reading material:
  • Dialog tag (Idioms used, speech traits, e.g. “you know”):
  • Dress:
  • Favorite colors:
  • Pastimes:
  • Description of home (Physical and the “feel”):
  • Most important thing to know about this character:
  • One-line characterization:

Key Questions:

  • What trait will make this character come alive, and why?
  • Why is this character different from other similar characters?
  • Do I like/dislike this character, and why?
  • Will readers like/dislike this character for the same reasons?
  • Characters who are remembered are those who are strong in some way—saints, sinners or a combination. For what will this character be remembered?

© Jack Hart

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