Writer’s Journey: True Characterization

Compared to any other form of writing, the novel is the most psychological, followed closely by the short story.  A short story may not have as much time for psychological delving, and by its shorter word count, becomes limited in introspection, but the greatest function of both narratives is to delve the inner soul or consciousness of its characters as much as possible.

E.M. Forster said that a “novel’s success lies in its own sensitiveness, not in the success of its subject-matter.”  By sensitivity, it’s the empathy of the author in question.  A writer must be keen enough to pick up the reflection of the world around them, even if they are writing about a story that took place in another time or on another world.  Character is that reflection; character brings any subject matter to life.  To find character, one must treat the novel as a psychological journey.

The word psychological may be off-putting to several people but it’s the best modern word for the subjective narrative experience.  There are novels that are less psychological and focus almost entirely upon pure story-telling, but they are usually classified as adventure novels, or exist in a category of some field like science-fiction where the play of words is focused upon technology and world-building for a good reason.  Isaac Asimov is a good example of this.  And we only need to look at Robinson Crusoe for a classic example of an adventure tale.

But the psychology found in novels is not to be equated with modern concepts of weekly therapy sessions, so-called happy pills, or even how the writer feels about his or her mother.  It’s more subjective in its analysis and was traditionally known as building character.  It becomes social psychology when readers pick up an author’s tale, read it, and form their own conclusions about why the characters did what they did.  “When you create characters and a storyscape that occupy somebody else’s imagination, you lose the sole authority to determine how that work resounds in others’ dreams.”  Words from Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Yet within the fabric of any writer’s tale is still more social psychology.  A delving of character must occur both inside the protagonist and between the characters.  We see some of the best social psychology written in the miniature-perfect worlds of Jane Austen as social strata rubs social strata and personal desires intersect and often go wrong.  Jane Austen’s worlds are so small and yet, because of the interaction of substantially interesting characters, they are vibrant and alive.

The subject-matter of a tale becomes illumined by the psychological viewpoints of all the characters and so this is the most vital skill of the working author.  Interesting subject-matter is not enough, in fact it could be argued that a writer could choose the world’s most boring subject-matter and with an emphasis on true characterization, the story would still be riveting to the reader.  But I don’t suggest that challenge to any writer.  More importantly, writers learn that the question of what happens next is less important than the understanding of character through what happens.


Meditation for your journal:  What is the psychological profile of my protagonist?  Of other characters?  And what does this bring to the subject-matter or setting of my world?