Monthly Archives: November 2009

Descriptive Writing – Tell me about your characters

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.

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Descriptive Writing – Darling, you look marvelous!

When it comes to describing their characters, writers use a lot of little tricks and techniques to tell you what they look like.  They might have someone comment about their looks, or have the character catch a glimpse of him or herself in the mirror and “reflect” on what they see, or simply offer a brief description.  But most authors do take the time to provide a visual description.

The most unusual technique I’ve seen was by a French writer who gave a description as an aside.  For example he might write: “Detective Walker – mid-forties, tall, thin, black hair with a touch of gray, pressed dark suit with his badge clipped to his coat pocket – strode into the room and looked down at the body of the deceased…”  While this is unusual, and a bit distracting at first, it does provide a snapshot of the character – without a lot of wasted effort.  I typically recommend avoiding anything that interrupts the flow of the story.  But I was surprised how quickly I accepted this technique.  After the first few times it really wasn’t a distraction at all.

 While it’s best to work the descriptions into the story as seamlessly as possible, it can become a challenge at times, especially for writers who have recurring characters.  You want to provide enough information about the recurring characters so that if a reader starts out of sequence, on book three for instance, he’s still provided enough description to see your characters.  But you don’t want to bore your dedicated readers who already know the characters because they’ve read the previous books.

 In her “alphabet series” Sue Grafton gives detailed descriptions of her recurring characters and locations so that you can pick up any book in the series and not be at a loss as to what anyone looks like.  Robert Parker, on the other hand, offers virtually no descriptions of his recurring characters in his series.  I guess he figures that if you want to be told what they look like, start at the beginning.  I was actually introduced to his Jesse Stone series by one of the movies starring Tom Selleck.  So now when I read the books I see Tom Selleck, even though the description of Jesse in the books doesn’t match.  You might think that would be a problem, but it really isn’t.  I already have a picture in my mind of how Jesse looks and that’s what I see.

 So that brings up the question – how much physical description should you provide?  As a test I read a section of a book to my wife, then asked her to tell me what the characters looked like.  She was able to do so with very little hesitation even though there were no physical descriptions in what I read.  In the absence of description she simply provided her own.  I think in many cases readers do this regardless.  So I tend to provide sketches of my characters but not a lot of specific detail.  Like a pencil drawing where the lines don’t all connect, but your mind sees the line anyway.

The point of descriptive writing is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” the character.  That’s all.  This can be accomplished with a few well-placed lines…and you might be surprised by how few.  The next time you’re describing what one of your characters looks like, pare it down and see how well you can describe them in as few words as possible.  I’ll offer a few techniques for doing this in my next article.  In the mean time pay attention to what other writers do.  I think you might be surprised how little actual physical descriptions some of them provide.

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