my book Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can
Learn from Actors, I introduce a process of characterization
I call Personalizing. I created this technique of “interviewing” your
character based on the three levels of characterization named by
Constantin Stanislavsky, known as the father of method acting. In each
of these levels a deeper probing of the character gives rise to more
personalized traits, which in turn reveal specific mannerisms.
Stanislavsky’s disappointment lay in that many actors stopped at the
first or second level. Yet only at the third is true individualization
We novelists often have a
similar problem. We tend to slap mannerisms and traits onto our
characters with no real understanding of the characters’ core
values—the deep beliefs that make them the people they are. The results
are stereotypical, cardboard characters. True characterization results
from starting on the inside and working out.
In a nutshell, here are the
steps to the Personalizing. We’ll go through each one to fully explain
1. Begin a line of questioning
with your character and pursue it until you “hit bottom.” Hitting
bottom means you arrive at the “So what?”—or logical conclusion—of that
line of questioning.
2. The final “So what?” question
will reveal a core truth or “inner value” about your character.
3. In turn, this inner value
will give rise to a trait.
4. Then pursue this line of
questioning even further to see if you can “hit bottom” a second time.
5. If you can “hit bottom”
again, you will discover a specific mannerism based on the inner value.
Now, to explain this process.
Level A: Division of
characters into general categories such as socio-economic level, age,
gender, and career
Imagine the quick introduction
of a game-show contestant, and you’ve got level A. “An English
professor from Omaha with three children,” or “A retired dog-trainer
who loves to fish.” Getting your character to answer Level A’s basic
question of “Who are you?” is easy enough. Your character is a military
man, a beautiful and wealthy woman, a homeless person, or an elderly
gentleman. Any such category automatically brings to mind an array of
potential mannerisms. In walking, for example, someone in the military
may tend to march, while a beautiful and rich woman may strut, a
homeless person listlessly ambles, and an elderly gentleman shuffles.
Or in eating, the military man may clear his plate with a quick
deliberateness, while the rich woman revels in the ambiance of fine
food and etiquette. This level of characterization is, of course,
necessary, and it’s true that major divisions such as career and
socio-economics begin to define a person. But we can easily imagine the
stereotypical disasters we’ll create by stopping here:
An abused, abandoned romantic heroine = fearful, feels unworthy
• A detective who’s clawed his way out of the slums = chip on his
• An elderly man with unrealized dreams = bitter, sour-faced
Let me hasten to add that the
above aren’t bad in themselves. Your detective from the slums may
indeed have a chip on his shoulder. The question is, how to move him
from mere stereotype to a unique persona?
Level B: Sub-category
of the first level, moving toward specifics
this level we can begin to
imagine some distinctions within a main category as we further define
the character and how he or she fits into our story. You most likely
will already know the answers to basic questions in Level B. For
example, is your military man a private, a major, a general? Or is he
in a specialized unit such as the Navy SEALs? Is the homeless person
new to the streets, or someone who’s lived there a long time? In his
working days, was the elderly gentleman employed in a factory, or was
he a high-level executive?
Answers to these queries will
lead you to numerous lines of specific questioning. Let’s say your
story involving the military is about a young man who has just enlisted
in the Marines. Perhaps this young man is following in the footsteps of
both his father and grandfather. How will this family history affect
his attitude toward the rigorous demands of the Marines? Obviously,
this young man’s actions and outlook will not be based on the years of
military training inherent to a general. But what if his grandfather
was a general? After growing up hearing his grandfather’s stories and
learning at the old man’s knee, might your character think he knows
more than other new recruits? Might he approach his peers with a bit of
a cocky attitude? Or might he have placed his grandfather on such a
pedestal that he feels he can never begin to measure up?
Or let’s say your character is
that beautiful and wealthy woman. Is she newly rich, or was she born
into money? A character with newfound wealth may harbor a different
attitude toward money than a woman who was born with a silver spoon in
her mouth. If your story is about the homeless man, exactly how long
has he been homeless? A man who’s recently lost his job won’t view the
streets with the familiarity of a person who’s been homeless for years.
Although at this level we are
beginning to see some of the attitudes of our characters, the
questioning up to this point only begins to scratch the surface.
Therefore, any mannerisms or traits attached now will remain too
generic. But it’s just so tempting to stop here. We figure we know the
basic information on our characters, some of their perceptions of life,
and we know the story or at least have a general idea of the story.
Time to assign a few personality quirks and gestures and get on with
Not so fast. The fun begins at
We’ll explore that next month.
from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn