In last week’s article I touched on how and to what detail writers describe their characters’ appearances. Today I want to look at things from a slightly different angle. If someone were to say to you, “Tell me about your main character,” how would you respond? Would you immediately give a physical description? Or would you start with other qualities, such as age, gender, ethnicity, background, etc.?
Notice that I used the term “about.” That’s an important distinction. “About” means a lot more than how your characters look. Of course it includes their physical appearance. But it also encompasses their demographics, traits and personality, attitudes, habits, quirks, etc. When someone says, “Tell me about your wife,” or husband or best friend or whomever, you tell them more than simply what they look like. In fact, how they look might be one of the last things you mention, if at all. And yet, when describing characters in our books many of us immediately jump straight to a physical description and do not pay enough attention to the other qualities that make up the character. There’s nothing wrong with providing a physical description up front. It offers a snapshot. But, like a snapshot, it’s one dimensional. To make our characters more interesting we need to provide the reader with a deeper insight. We need to tell them about our characters. Granted, it takes time to develop your characters. But why not start that process when you introduce them? Consider the following:
Nicole glided into the room with the grace of a dancer. The beige jodhpurs fit her snugly and the black, knee-high boots enhanced the shape of her legs. The navy jacket had padded shoulders and was tailored at the waist, giving her torso a pronounced V shape. She held a riding crop in one gloved hand. With the other she pulled a ribbon from her auburn hair, letting it fall over her shoulders. She brushed it away from her face as she turned toward me. It was the first time I’d seen her in almost twenty years. Outwardly she still had that same youthful exuberance. But when she looked at me I could see there was now a wariness in her pale blue eyes, a hesitancy that had not been there before.
With this paragraph we get not only a physical description of Nicole but also a little insight into her personality. “The grace of a dancer” tells us something about her demeanor. What if she had strode into the room like a field general? How would that change our picture of her? Jodhpurs and a tailored jacket…a riding crop in one gloved hand… What do her clothes tell us about her? “Almost twenty years” gives us a point of reference for her age, albeit somewhat vague. Youthful exuberance…wariness in her eyes…hesitancy… These are all phrases that tell us about her personality, make her a little more interesting, perhaps even introduce a little intrigue. What has she experienced that changed her personality from assured and confident to hesitant and wary?
What about the name? Nicole. If she were named Mary or Rosalita or Lakeisha how would that affect your mental picture? What about Buffy or Mimsy? Names are important and we should give careful consideration to their selection. Don’t create a conflict by giving your character the wrong name. Sometimes you can get away with having a strong, dynamic female character named Mimsy, but typically it doesn’t work.
As I said in my last article, the point of describing your characters is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” them. That doesn’t mean that you need to write a page-and-a-half of flowery description when you introduce your characters. Just don’t limit yourself to a flat picture that only shows the reader what they look like. A physical description provides a snapshot. Telling your readers “about” your characters adds dimension and depth.