Characterisation: The Bedrock Of Any Novel

In the Futurelearn Start Writing Fiction course we looked at Josip Novakovich’s methods of Characterisation:

Here is my summary of Novakovich’s methods:



This looks a bit like me, with my glasses on! Except no grey hair yet, well none I’m admitting to!

All the quotes I have taken as examples are from Hiromi Kawakami’s excellent book, Strange Weather in Tokyo which I have recently reviewed and given five stars.

Summary – In this method tell us what your characters are like and what they like doing using the 3rd person. The advantage of this method is simplicity and readability. The disadvantage is a tendency to tell rather than show. No dramatic action or dialogue takes place.

His full name was Mr Harutsana Matsumoto, but I called him ‘Sensei’. Not ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’, just ‘Sensei’.
He was my Japanese teacher at secondary school He wasn’t my form teacher, and Japanese didn’t interest me much, so I didn’t really remember him. Since I finished school, I haven’t seen him for quite a while.

From this opening summary Hiromi Kawakami swiftly, and expertly, takes the reader into a scene at a crowded bar, with dialogue between the two main characters of the novel, Tsukiko and Sensei.

Repeated action or habit. This is a people watching exercise. What do your characters do? Have they any unconscious habits, or actions? The advantage of this method is that it saves time. The disadvantage is that it delays entry into dramatic scenes.

Sensei had always held an eraser in his hand when writing on the blackboard.

Sensei did not like anyone to pour his drinks for him. Whether it was beer or sake, he meticulously poured for himself.

Self portrait – Introducing him or herself. Can be achieved directly or indirectly. Works better if the words create a picture of the character or create some drama.

Here is Tsukiko’s self-portrait:

I, on the other hand, still might be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up when I was in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself to time.

This short paragraph tells us so much about Tsukiko.

Sensei tells us about himself in a lengthy story about his wife and son and himself going hiking.

It is interesting how Hiromi Kawakami uses the differing self portraits of the two characters, to suggest the disparity in their ages, the younger of the two, Tsuikiko’s is short and to the point, and Sensei’s is long-winded and rambling.

Appearance – We can learn an awful lot about a character from appearance. I liked Novakovich’s tip about hands. Hands can be used to great effect or even feet or the way a person walks. Writing captures motion well. Again careful choice of words seems to be the key.

Descriptions of Sensei’s appearance:

His white hair was carefully smoothed back, and he was wearing a starched white shirt with a grey waistcoat.

He wore a tweed suit with leather shoes. His suit looked old but well-tailored.

When he was chewing his mouth was that of an old man.

Details about Sensei’s gait:

Sensei held his umbrella straight up and started walking. I could sense from his gait the tacit but full expectation that I would follow him.

Scene – Set your character in motion, combining appearance, action and dialogue. Advantage of this method. The reader is with you visualising and experiencing the scene. Most lifelike. The disadvantage: it is difficult to include back story, there are only so many flash backs, and memories that you can interweave into plot.

‘These elms are so verdant, aren’t they?’ Sensai said, looking up at the trees beside the bus stop. He was right – dense with leaves, the branches of the elms waved in the breeze. Although the wind was light, high in the sky, the tops of the elms swayed even more grandly.
It was a hot summer day, but the low humidity kept it cool in the shade. We took the bus to Teramachi and then walked a little. Sensei was wearing a panama hat and a Hawaiian shirt in muted colours.



Combining techniques: Combine two or more of the above techniques, making the characters development incremental.

The advice to combine techniques is excellent, the sound of a character’s voice, and sensory details can also create a powerful image:

It was only his voice that I remembered from the beginning. He had a resonant voice with a somewhat high timber, but it was rich with overtones. A voice that emanated from the boundless presence by my side at the counter.

At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold on it – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would sneak back up on me…Wasn’t a sensation just that kind of indistinct notion that slips away, no matter how you try to contain it

Author’s bio on Goodreads:

Josip Novakovich (Croatian: Novaković) is a Croatian-American writer. His grandparents had immigrated from the Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Cleveland, Ohio, and, after the First World War, his grandfather returned to what had become Yugoslavia. Josip Novakovich was born (in 1956) and grew up in the Central Croatian town of Daruvar, studied medicine in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. At the age of 20 he left Yugoslavia, continuing his education at Vassar College (B.A.), Yale University (M.Div.), and the University of Texas, Austin (M.A.).

He has published a novel (April Fool’s Day), three short story collections (Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust), two collections of narrative essays (Apricots from Chernobyl, Plum Brandy: Croatian Journey) and a textbook (Fiction Writer’s Workshop).

Novakovich has taught at Nebraska Indian Community College, Bard College, Moorhead State University, Antioch University in Los Angeles, the University of Cincinnati, and is now a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Mr. Novakovich is the recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, an award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He was anthologized in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize, and O.Henry Prize Stories.

He taught in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at Pennsylvania State University, where he lived under the iron rule of Reed Moyer’s Halfmoon Township autocracy. He is currently in Montreal, Quebec teaching at Concordia University.

His book Fiction Writer’s Workshop, may be of interest: .

ISBN 1884910394 (ISBN13: 9781884910395)

As might Marakumi’s excellent novel:

Strange Weather in Tokyo Hiromi Kawakami

ISBN 9781846275104

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4 thoughts on “Characterisation: The Bedrock Of Any Novel

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    1. Thankyou Victoria. It’s great to get positive feedback. I found it a useful exercise to apply the concepts that we’re learning to examples in books I love. 🙂

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