Characterization vs. Character Development, by Belinda Nicoll

I’m so happy to welcome our second guest blogger to!

Belinda Nicoll is originally from South Africa. She expatriated to the United States in 2001 and became a citizen in 2010. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, was a talent agent and drama coach before venturing into the advertising world as copywriter and client service director, and these days she works as a freelance writer and creativity coach. Belinda recently published a memoirOut of Sync (a story about a marriage surviving the forces of personal and global change) and she is currently working on her first novel.


Characterization vs. Character Development

Characters in a story are brought to life by their physical traits, habits and gestures, emotional responses and intellectual observations, as well as their goals and conflicts. In doing so, writers avail themselves of the standard creative writing elements, such as setting, scene, dialogue, exposition, voice, and sensory detail. But all characters aren’t equal and neither are the writers who shape them. Some writers approach characterization via emotions because they believe behavior is influenced primarily by feelings. Other writers accentuate their characters’ quirks because they see a particular foible—be it endearing, offensive, or entertaining—as the determining factor in evoking a desired response.

You often hear writers say they hope the muse will ‘take them where they need to go,’ or you read accounts of writers getting insight into a protagonist’s motivation thanks to a dream or an imagined conversation. I’ve heard creative writing professors advising students to just take up the pen and allow characters to shape themselves. Giving absolute free reign to the protagonist of a historical novel, however, might not be entirely feasible if the objective is to emulate a legendary figure known for certain sentiments, for instance. While I believe there are no rules when it comes to characterization, writers in the process of developing their characters undoubtedly stand to benefit from any kind of prescribed technique or unique method that helps them to depict a protagonist’s transformation in a credible way.

Portraying rich characters is the obligation of nonfiction writers too, even with the constraints of their factual matter. As the author of a published memoir, I studied the style of celebrated authors like Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight), Jeannette Walls (The Glass Castle), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Frank Conroy (Stop-Time), and Jane Alison (The Sisters Antipodes). Let me illustrate some of the insights these books provided me with:

What is interesting about Alison’s account of her parents exchanging partners with another couple is that the two sets of daughters are suddenly confronted with different family structures. The four girls go into shock because of their parents’ betrayal and their behaviors indicate a severely disturbed value system. Whereas previously they were deeply bonded, now their relationships suffer. Seeing as we learn a lot about people (ourselves too) from their interactions with others, character development in Alison’s book is extreme as not one of the eight people are left unaffected by this event.

The famous Angela’s Ashes is filled with eccentric characters that make you laugh and cry thanks to McCourt’s proficient Irish voice—on page 58, for instance: “Aunt Aggie complained when Grandma told her Mam would have to sleep with her that night. Grandma said, Oh will you shut your gob. ‘Tis only for one night an’ that won’t kill you an’ if you don’t like it you can go back to your husband where you belong anyway instead of runnin’ home to me. Jesus, Mary an’ Holy St. Joseph, look at this house—you an’ Pat an’ Angela and her clatther of Americans. Will I have any peace in the latter end of my life?” Even just this tiny excerpt gives great insight into his family’s difficulties and their relationships. McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize for his story; he’d known much poverty in his life, in the U.S. during the Depression and in Ireland during the Famine. He admitted to being surprised that he had survived his “miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

You can’t help but love Walls’s charming father when he’s sober and hate his dishonest and destructive nature when he’s drunk. He moves his family from town to town and the children are not only lacking roots but they’re exposed to a pretty warped value system. Eventually, while her parents choose homelessness despite several opportunities to uplift themselves, Walls and her siblings take the initiative to break free from the poverty of the past, thus changing their lives for the better, physically and emotionally.

My favorite example of a vivid nonfiction character is Fuller’s mother, an eccentric British expat trying to cope with the civil war in her host country, Rhodesia, with the help of cocktails. In her perpetually inebriated state, she often puts her children in the way of danger, like having them travel on the back of a Land Rover in an area rigged with landmines. Public response to this character was so favorable that Fuller recently dedicated a new book to her mother, titled Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Sadly, this time round “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa,” as her mother prefers to be known, comes across as a self-dramatized figure. It’s not that she’s an uninteresting character, and while it’s easy to empathize with all the hardships she suffers, she seems to end up the very same hard-drinking British expat with a staunch passion for Africa who won’t listen to any reason. Hence, there’s no discernible shift as far as her behavior, values, beliefs, and identity are concerned.

As the author of Out of Sync, one of the overarching themes in my book is that of beliefs, seeing as values and beliefs are known to be the strongest motivators of behavior. In 2009, facing a divorce and an empty nest, I knew my life was about to change drastically. But I’d reached some level of professional success, so I was looking forward to the benefits of my own and my children’s growing independence. What I couldn’t have foreseen was a second marriage that happened before I had had a chance to really enjoy my own emancipation. Then followed a hasty expatriation from South Africa to the United States when my new husband was offered a professional opportunity. On top of that, we arrived at JFK International Airport on September, 11th. From that moment on, my life changed like toppling dominoes and the upheaval would not let up until years later, after several relocations and career changes. The awareness that I bring to my story is that my life shifted on so many levels: environment, behavior, capabilities, values and beliefs, identity, and spirituality. These are the levels of a behavior change model I’m trained in as a life coach, and it’s also this model I use when I write and teach about character development.

As a story develops it is expected that characters change along with the plotline. And when they do it means stuff is happening to them. This “stuff” can be big or small: maybe they’re thinking differently about an issue or relationship; maybe they’ve learned new skills and are now acting differently or attaching a different meaning to something; maybe their beliefs about the world are no longer what they used to be. If changes take place on the values and beliefs level and they’re sustained for a fair amount of time, you’ll often find that these are echoed on the identity level. The behavior change model can be a handy guide when it comes to contemplating exactly when, where, and how your characters change, helping to ensure that their transformation is described in a credible way.


The print and electronic editions of Belinda’s book are available on Amazon:


You can read an excerpt from Belinda’s book and reviews about it by clicking on the links below:

Pdf excerpt of Out of Sync



Follow the links below for more information about Belinda and her business, or to contact her:







, , ,

  1. #1 by My Rite of Passage on September 13, 2012 - 1:11 pm

    Thank you, 5Writers, for hosting me at your delightful blog.

  2. #2 by Sherrey Meyer on September 13, 2012 - 3:31 pm

    Belinda, thanks for a post that especially helps me in the development of my family members in my memoir drafting. It is a writing piece I struggle with frequently.

    Thanks to 5writers for hosting Belinda today!

  3. #3 by My Rite of Passage on September 13, 2012 - 10:41 pm

    You’re welcome, Sherrey. It’s tricky to decide how much detail to reveal in memoir: firstly, it’s your book so it’s your prerogative; secondly, you only have to reveal what’s pertinent to the story. Let me know if there’s any specific issue you’d like to brainstorm with me.

  4. #4 by Penelope J. on September 16, 2012 - 10:58 pm

    Belinda, Thanks for an excellent post on character vs. character development. Especially liked your giving specific examples of characterization in well-known/beloved memoirs.

  5. #5 by My Rite of Passage on September 17, 2012 - 3:40 pm

    You’re welcome, Penelope. Thanks for responding.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: