Creating a character in fiction is a process, one that is a little different for every author. There is no correct
process, just a continuum of final products. Characterization encompasses every aspect of the character: age, physical description, ethnicity, mental acuity, wealth, religion, and more.
Many authors find it helpful to sketch out their characters before attempting to write them into prose. They construct a biography of the most mundane details about what a character looks like, which flavor of ice cream they prefer, or even odd quirks like their favorite orchestral instrument. Many authors find this exercise helpful for learning who their character is. They can then write their character's point of view in a realistic manner. Other authors simply write their characters into prose straight from their imagination, allowing the point of view to develop as they write the story.
Let's take a brief moment to think about character development and creation. Characters need balance, just like prose itself. No character should be all good or all bad. There should be many facets (depth) to their personality, physicality, and history. All characters should have flaws as well as virtues.
For a more thorough discussion of character creation and development on an individual basis, please visit Madame Pomfrey's Character Care Clinic on the Beta Boards.
Now, once an author begins writing, it is important to remember that thorough characterization doesn't entail discussing every possible detail of the character. You should let the character show themselves in a natural narrative form. It is possible to characterize someone well without revealing their political leanings, their eye color, or their preference in tennis shoes, but you should reveal something.
A strong story needs balance between characterization, action, and plot. Ideally each aspect of the story overlaps. The action lends more clues to the characterization. Characterization can be exposed through actions and plot developments.
Example of a paragraph with implicit characterization (characterization written into dialogue and action):
"Darn it!" Wincing, Audrey hopped on one foot while the anonymous students parted around her. "Stupid cheap trainers, stupid uneven floor, stupid broken toe." She managed to hobble to the wall and get out of the stream of strangers, her new classmates. Why did her first day have to start with a spectacle? She hadn't even made it to homeroom— not that she had any idea where that was.
Example of the same sequence with less characterization:
"Darn it." Audrey hopped on one foot through the crowd of students until she reached the wall. She had hurt her toe on the uneven floor. It was her first day at a new school.
Example of a paragraph that gives too much information in an explicit, expository fashion:
Audrey, a five foot tall brunette with brown eyes and a scraggly brown braid, started her first day at Garrison Prepatory Academy located twenty-three miles from Garrison Village. She was twelve and was wearing a tweed uniform with white ankle socks and some generic white trainers. She stubbed her toe on the uneven blue linoleum in the hall because she was a little clumsy and probably needed glasses, but she wasn't willing to admit it.
None of the three paragraphs is wrong. They all have characterization. The first is better balanced than the other two, and the goal is always to achieve balance. Too much expositional description is boring; not enough detail is also boring. Finding the right balance between details, exposition, plot, and action is the ultimate challenge to thorough characterization.
In fandom, characterization can be divided into two main types: canon characterization and OC (original character) characterization. Canon characters like Harry Potter, Blaise Zabini, or Severus Snape have a basis in the novels. OCs are derived from the author's imagination. Each form of characterization has its own pitfalls and payoffs, and we will address them separately.
The source material (Books 1-6, interviews with JKR, and supplementary books) provide characterization for all the canon characters. Some characters are more thoroughly characterized by Ms. Rowling than others. For instance, Harry as the protagonist is the most thoroughly characterized character from the novels. Lisa Turpin, on the other hand, is mentioned briefly without any significant development. As a Fan Fiction author, you can write a story featuring Harry or Lisa, but your handling of the characterization should be significantly different depending on the character you pick.
When writing Harry it is important to remain true to the characterization that JKR provides. She has written this character for six novels and there is a plethora of background and history. While you can do new things with the character, you have to respect the source material and keep Harry in character.
If you are having a hard time capturing a canon character's point of view, try reading a novel again that featured them prominently. With Harry you could reread book six to remind yourself of the most current attitudes he expressed and his most recent maturity level.
If you chose to write about Lisa, your options are much wider. She is one step from an original character, and while you should look to the source material for any clues JKR provides, you are largely responsible for filling in the blank spaces. You have to make her a balanced, believable character.
Some tips for keeping canon characters in character:
- When in doubt, read the original and remind yourself of the point of view you are writing.
- Remember the things that make the character distinctive without overdoing it
Luna should be somewhat eccentric, and she should occasionally express faith in an unlikely thing like Nargles. She should not discuss a new imaginary creature every time she opens her mouth or behave in a manner that belittles her intelligence. She is a Ravenclaw for a reason.
- Remember that these novels are set in England. Dialect and slang should reflect that location.
- Remember that these novels are taking place in the 90s. And your fanfiction should be true to its time period.
Creating an original character is one of the most exciting aspects of writing fiction. You are responsible for building every bit of this character as discussed in the overview.
Slipping an original character into fandom has a few unique pitfalls to deal with. The character has to fit logically into the world. If your original character is a sentient alien rock from the planet Frocket, he might not fit well into a Harry Potter story. A student between the ages of eleven and seventeen at Hogwarts is a simpler fit.
Once you have a character that fits into the world, you have to start looking out for clichés. Clichés are ideas that have been written many times in a fandom. They aren't strictly forbidden, but they are very difficult to write with enough skill to be acceptable. Some examples of OC clichés in the Harry Potter fandom would be: Mary Sue/Gary Stu, Harry's long lost sibling/twin, exchange students.
Mary Sue and her masculine counterpart Gary Stu are a much bandied term that simply indicates a character that is too perfect, too unique, or too ANYTHING. No character should be perfectly tragic, perfectly pretty, or perfectly evil. There should be variety to a character, positives and negatives. When a character is too one-note they become less interesting.
Another common pitfall to creating an OC is the sudden tunnel vision of all canon characters. Many authors fall into the trap of making their OC the center of everyone's universe. Is it reasonable for seventeen year old Harry to be suddenly and singularly preoccupied with a young Auror transferred up from Australia when up to that point he was focused on his destiny and hunting Horcruxes?
To review: an OC should be a rounded character, with positives and negatives. They should not pull the canon characters around them out
Characterization is the communication of a fictional person, their point of view, their motion, and their physical form through the development of a story.
It is the simplest thing in the world to attempt, and very challenging to balance.