Characterization for Transmedia

For the first installation of my Writing for Transmedia series, let's look at characterization, shall we? Creating compelling characters is one of the most crucial tasks confronting any narrative, in any medium. In a novel, your toolset for characterization are pretty well understood: you describe with telling details about the character and their interaction with the environment, through dialogue, body language, and so on. With transmedia, the tools you have available are more varied.

Visual Characterization

Imagine a character with face tattoos and a green mohawk, and one with a shirtwaist dress and dainty pearl earrings. They're different, right?

Here's where transmedia starts to be a lot less like a novel and a lot more like a comic book or a screenplay (or even a traditional video game). To characterize for transmedia, you need to develop a visual sense. When you're writing web-based fiction, you don't generally have the liberty of simply describing a character like I just did up there. You have to show us, not tell us, in a literal sense. 

If you plan to include photos or video, you can substitute description with casting, costuming, and setting. All of these elements work to characterize. If your character will be keeping a blog, the design must be one the character would choose as their public face. Same-same with Twitter profile themes and so on. Face Tattoos and Pearl Earrings probably wouldn't want or like the same site designs.

I used to make myself crazy with one more qualifier -- the character would have to know how to put up sites and profiles of that complexity. But I believe it's an emerging convention not to overthink personal websites with production values exceeding the plausible skill of the character in question. (And if it's not, then it should be!) Don't let realism trip you into weakening your story.

Media Choices

Ideally, everything about a character will be internally consistent. Even the media platforms you choose can build character. 

A character who primarily uses LinkedIn is perceived as different from the sort of person who uses Facebook; your LinkedIn user will be considered all business, and it won't be your venue of choice if your story is going to involve intensive personal drama. Gmail and AOL email addresses bring up very different connotations -- the Gmail user will be considered technology-savyy, the AOL user not so much. 

There will be projects where these media choices will be made for structural reasons instead (or because of a partnership agreement, or because only one choice has a pivotal feature you need). So you won't always have the liberty to work them for character. But examine your platform decisions whenever you do have the opportunity. Every little touch helps.


Voice is important in writing dialogue for flat fiction. Voice is about a hundred times more important in social media storytelling; everything you write for a character is, essentially, dialogue. Sometimes literally, as in a video script. Sometimes figuratively. What is a blog post, if not a monologue? Or a Tweet? Or an email?

This has some far-reaching implications for transmedia storytelling. Every piece of content you put out there from a character says something about who they are -- and who they want your audience to think they are. In transmedia, every character is an unreliable narrator

But "unreliable" in the sense that they'll be trying to get your audience to think of them in the way that character wants to be seen. (Just like social media in real life, eh?) There can be a gap, here, between content and presentation, and in that gap, character shines through. 

Characters who insist they aren't the kind to hold a grudge, but who take every opportunity to talk smack about people who they've fought with in the past. Characters who talk long and loud about how great their life is, and let slip the barest mention of looming conflict or worry in an offhand way. This sort of mismatch isn't going to be necessary or even advisable for every character or every project, but used well, this can create a wonderful richness of depth.

Traditional Tools

Don't forget that one of the best tools for showing character in flat fiction is still there for you: What the character actually does in your story. All of the great visual detail and telling media choices in the world won't help you if your character doesn't do interesting things. Action speaks to motivation and character like nothing else. Action in a transmedia project, though, can be difficult to convey. I'll talk about why plus a few tricks to cope next time.

Meanwhile: Agree? Disagree? Do you have other thoughts for how to characterize in transmedia? Leave a comment. We're all learning together. ^_^

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