The yin and yang of characterization

Character month continues on WU, and here’s my approach to crafting characters.

First, let me start by telling you what I used to do.  I used to do pages of character traits, likes and dislikes, backstory, what sort of ice cream they’d eat or how many siblings they had.  I’d have so many characteristics for my protagonists that by the time I got around to telling the story, I was overwhelmed by these tags.  Or else the character would morph in the telling of the story, rendering all those weeks of work useless.

Then I realized that the most compelling characters in fiction, to me, had two dominant characteristics — a positive and a negative (or a dark and light).  Oh sure, the characters also had other bits of color as well (Ex: Anne of Green Gables hates her red hair; hobbits love mushrooms).  But I realized that focusing on two clear-cut aspects allowed the reader to dig into the character, and helps the writer hone in on moving the story along instead of worrying if you made it clear that Mary Sue loves butterscotch sundaes and how the hell are you supposed to work that into the narrative?

Deciding on two primary character tags is harder than it sounds.  Ideally, you want your character to grow and change with the story, to learn something by the end.  So you want to embed a characteristic that they will either overcome or learn to accept by the end of all the trials and tribulations you have planned for them.

I’ll use my favorite example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Most of us know the story (if you don’t, what are you waiting for!?).  Lizzy Bennett is a self-aware young woman with a blind spot: she can be swayed by prejudice.  She runs up against Mr. Darcy, who suffers from an excess of pride.  Both characters learn to overcome their negative characteristic through conflict with each other.  By the end of the story, they’ve fallen in love and, more importantly, have had their faults revealed to them.  The reason their story is so powerful (besides fantastic dialogue and pacing) is that each character’s hallmark characteristic polarizes the other character.  The reader delights in the sparring between the two because we know that a) Mr. Darcy has the pride and b) Lizzy has the prejudice and it seems like they’ll never come to a mutual understanding, until, suddenly, they do.

When I’m ready to start drafting a story, I now concentrate on two things: what kind of emotional journey do I want my character to take and what two characteristics do I need to make that journey as fraught with conflict and angst as possible.  The rest of the character details emerge organically as I write the story.

What sorts of character details do you like to focus on when you’re creating characters?  Do you try to embed positive and negative characteristics in your protagonists?

Image by zi0n.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.


  1. says

    This is a fantastic post, Kath. Love the P&P example.

    I also try to create protagonists with positive and negative characteristics, who are in some ways opposite one another. I’m making a character map for book #2, too, with one-word descriptions of a character–like “intuitive”–linked to a character with an opposite characteristic–like “logical.” Each protag winds up on the chart in more than one way, and it’s been gratifying to see potential lines of conflict all over the page. (I really hope that made sense.)

    Thanks again for the post!

  2. says

    This is a really interesting post. I am coming to the end of a creative writing module at university, and my lecturer told us we need to know the ins and outs of our characters, that we should write them all down. I, like you, found this really distracting. For me, my characters seem to materialize more fully just as I write about them. I think it is always important to give them positive and negative characteristics – otherwise they will never be fully rounded and believable – and it is interesting to see how they affect character interaction.

  3. says

    Omigosh, I love this yin vs. yang idea, and the example you gave to illustrate it. (Seriously, if people haven’t read P&P, they MUST GO DO IT NOW.)

    Now I wanna go try this method… ;)

  4. says

    Very good post and so succinct. I have always bristled at the idea and execution of mapping out every detail about a character prior to writing the story. By the time I finished with the exercise, I was ready to move on to the next story.


  5. says

    This is a really great idea, thanks for sharing it! I’m getting ready to do some character development work for the novel I’m writing and this will help out a lot, as I, too, have felt that the whole get-to-know-every-detail-of-your-characters-before-you-write process is a bit too limiting, too early. I’m definitely going to give this method a shot. Thanks again!

  6. says

    It’s a YMMV (your milage may vary) thing, but like Keith I burned out when I examined every aspect of my characters before they even did something. The worst part was settling on a character only to have them look up at you from the page and go, “uh uh, that’s not how I operate.”

  7. Nancy Laughlin says

    Excellent blog, Kathleen and just what I needed to hear today it seems.
    The comment about the protagonist’s and antagonist’s qualities polarizing the other’s really struck a cord and helped to crystalize a problem I’ve been struggling with in my novel without realizing it.
    Thanks for the help! I’ll use this structure going forward.

  8. Dennis says

    Great approach. I feel that to write an in depth detailed dossier of each character is akin to writing the story – so why not just go ahead and write the story. I’m about to start my third draft and the characters have developed and matured with the story more than any prepared individual biography would allow – even to the extent of one character now having lost the use of one arm.

  9. Vic K says

    Oh thank god. Some advice that doesn’t involve examining your character to the point at which you know how they use toilet paper. Great approach, I love it!

    I actually have seen another one which I have used (but keep forgetting to refer to, so I don’t know how useful it is for me as a writer) where you examine how your character is seen from other character’s perspectives.

    For example, you write five positive comments an enemy would say about your MC. Quite useful for fantasy writers.

  10. says

    I never construct a character. I have something–a blob of personality with a name attached to it–and i spend the book discovering what that blob is and what it isn’t. I couldn’t tell you anything about the character until after I’d written the book.

  11. says

    For me it depends on the story — sometimes I must get a lot of character detail down first — but more often than not, I discover the quirky bits and pieces of character as I go. It’s the broad brushstrokes that occur to me first, or their roles in representing some theme or duality.

    I love Keith’s comment, “By the time I finished with the exercise, I was ready to move on to the next story.” So true!

    That’s also why I try not to describe in-progress characters or story lines to people until the stories are done. For some reason, it just corrodes my motivating compulsion to write the story.

  12. says

    I’m firmly in the camp of you don’t know how someone’s going to act until you put them in the situation. Obviously it’s the writer’s job to control the situation, but characters — like people– can surprise you!

    And I love the surprises. That’s what keeps me writing.

  13. Vicky McAulay says

    I always felt that I was doing things wrong. I couldn’t bring myself to develop a detailed character chart or interview my characters as so many guidebooks and instructors say you should. My characters just grow with the story revealing themselves to me as we go, the way you learn about people in real life. In my current WIP, a secondary character has sprung to life and may end up as a primary. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d laid out a detailed character map. Your post takes away the feeling that I was somehow cheating the process. Thanks.

  14. says

    Popped here from a Twitter retweet – glad i did. I think it’s a bit like when you meet someone new and have a ‘feeling’ about them. With some people you can be pretty sure they’re trustworthy, or too cautious to wear bright orange, or bigoted… without finding out as such. My characters, at least the ones i’m able to write about(!), work like that – i ‘know’ them well, but if i answer the questions on paper first, i lose sight of them. Letting them go about doing stuff, talking, reacting to problems, feeling fear and passion, etc, is the only way i get deeper into them.