Rats, Cockroaches and Bats or How Good Characterization Overcomes All

I intensely dislike rats. I mean really really dislike them. To the point of phobia. Over the summer, I got sucked deep into Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander Series. My favorite character? A rat.

I know. It surprised me too.

Hold on a minute…it gets better. I cried over the death of a four-foot cockroach. My kids say I cry at the drop of a hat anyway, but a cockroach? Really? It’s all true.

Let me tell you, any writer that can get me to like a rat and cry for a cockroach has got characterization down.

As a new writer, I tended to overpaint my characters. The more, the better, I thought. In rewrites, I learned how to back off, to let a few tiny strokes take the place of a bucket. I still tend to paint in absolutes—all good or all bad. I’m working on that. I also still occasionally come out with a cardboard cutout character—it’s so easy to just create somebody to fill space.

Every day I learn a little more. I may never be able to make you love a rat or cry for a cockroach but I keep trying.

Some of my favorite characters from recent reads?  Ripred the rat from Gregor the Overlander. Severus Snape from Harry Potter. Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings. Stuart Redman from The Stand. Cole and Hitch from Appaloosa. Emma Graham from Hotel Paradise. Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Who are your favorite characters? Who is an author who can make you like the unlikeable?

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5 thoughts on “Rats, Cockroaches and Bats or How Good Characterization Overcomes All

  1. I love Ann Patchett, Tobias Wolf and T.C. Boyle. I think Boyle most of all for making unlikable characters at least understandable. I’m thinking of the book he wrote about Frank Lloyd Wright, who was quite the egomaniac. Patchett and Wolf just write such gorgeous sentences their characters can’t help but spring off the page.

    • Making unlikeable characters understandable is an art, I think. As I mentioned, I’m still into absolutism (is that a word?). I need to dig deeper to find what makes the bad guys tick.

  2. Wall-E amazed me when I fell in love with the Roach. I mean, I shivered when I read the title of your post. I moved from Florida to get away from them. Yet, that little creature won my heart on the big screen. Now that’s good characterization. I mean the thing didn’t even talk. LOL

  3. Outstanding information. It is difficult to find the balance between overdoing and underdoing a character’s personality. I think when you really like your character you tend to write more and more about him/her/it. I must try and find the cockroach story to see what you mean. After arriving in FL and cleaning up palmetto bugs (as they are known in FL) I doubt I will ever love a cockroach! And characters? Jan Karon’s Mitford Series has many lovable characters including the minister’s dog!

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