Character Do’s and Don’ts : Part 1

Hello everybody,
IMG_3805We have had Spring Fling taking place in Dumfries and Galloway over the bank holiday weekend and I shall be telling you about that in an extra post shortly, but in the meantime here is the first of our series of posts on character. Don’t worry if you feel you haven’t got quite enough information at the end of this 2-part post; this and subsequent posts will soon begin to work together help you see where you may be going wrong with your characters.

NB: I have split this post into two parts to avoid swamping you with information. Part II will be posted tomorrow.

Problem: How do I know what to tell a reader about a character and what to leave out? I think I’ve put in too much detail but I’m not sure what I need and what I don’t.

The Problem with Putting in too Much:

When you start out it’s easy to overbuild a character when you describe them, by putting it everything you want to tell the reader about them. The trouble is that this is going to be too much information, too soon and too quickly. And what’s more, all the time you are busy describing, nothing is happening in the story.

Here is an example of too much, unhelpful, description:

He was a young man with blonde hair and blue eyes. He liked to wear short sleeved shirts all summer so that his arms were always tanned. On Sundays he worked as a gardener for a neighbour and when he took his morning break he liked to lie on the lawn and day dream about ….

You don’t want to sound as if you are describing a missing person.Instead you might have something like this:

‘The young man lay with languid grace on the lawn between the shed and the house, squinting into the sun. He leaned on an elbow, one leg outstretched, the other, slightly bent. Blonde hairs glistened on the brown sheen of his lower arms…’.

This example provides less information in a single block yet there is a clearer idea of this man as a living person. We can leave the reader to guess that if he has blonde hairs on his arms, he is likely to be fair, possibly blue eyed.

Someone is watching the gardener – this is all the information we have prior to this description. We don’t need to be told it’s Sunday and it is obvious he is taking a break from the gardening. Small details like his movements; the confident way he stretches himself out on someone else’s lawn, the use of words like “languid”, the slow pace of the sentence, all give us clues that are more effective than the list-like characteristics in the first example.

What You Don’t Put In:

Everything:
All you need are details that are important and relevant for this type of person at this point in time; whatever fits him for the role he will play in your story. It’s not your job to burden your reader with the masses of information about your character that you have come up with, or to explain anything. Keep yourself from intruding into your story – Scribble ‘Writer Be Gone!’ at the top of your page. Less is more. Use only what is necessary to bring your character and the world they inhabit, into focus.

Generic Descriptions:
Go for specific detail, especially for your main character. I could have said the young man was sexy but that would mean different things to different people. It is more effective to think of a few specific details that might suggest this and use that. If you base the the details on something you have experienced means you are less likely to invent a stereotype.

The Feelings of Characters:
As the writer, you need to know what your character is feeling but avoid telling your reader this. There are much better ways of conveying feelings through judicious use of detail.

Try This:
Write about a character in a particular setting as if you are watching them and they are unaware of your presence. You know what they are feeling but don’t mention this. Can you convey something of their mood by using a few details of their behaviour and appearance?

What You Need to Do:

Make a Choice:
What sort of character do you want for the kind of story you have in mind? What do you want readers to know about him or her? Think of ways you might be able to convey this through small, specific details here and there.

Select:
If you put in everything, it would be difficult for readers to know what to focus on and which details were important to the story. We tend to notice only a few details about a person when we first meet them and judge them on those, even if we amend our view later as we get to know them better. We notice what a person looks like (including what they wear), what they do (including how they move), what they say (and how they say it) and what others say about them. And out of these, what they say and do are the most useful and telling. (We will cover all these more fully in another post).

So, pick out a few, specific and interesting details to help your reader build up a brief mental picture of your character. Choose details that fit with the character’s inner self and their role in the story. If I had chosen a small pale secretive man in the above example, he would have belonged in a different story. A few brief details can give readers the right image and they will add the rest. They won’t want a writer giving them extra information about what the character likes to do on Sundays. Put in as little as you can and only what seems vital. You can always add more later.

Try This:
Don’t just see. Sharpen your ability to observe detail. What do you notice? Observe people near you in a bus or from a car window, in a doctors surgery or at a supermarket. Someone may create an impression. Look closer. If it was kindness, for example, then what created that impression? What is underneath it? Ask questions as an onlooker. Discover techniques you can use from the answers. Ask what might be going on at this point in their lives. Let your own experience inform your impressions, rather than use things you have heard or read elsewhere.

Allow the Reader to Infer:
From the brief description in the above example, you may already have an image of the gardener; how he looks or how he is dressed, even though you have not been told. Fewer details are also more likely to make a reader curious to know more. Given the gardener’s movements, a reader may wonder what has caused him to behave this way, that perhaps he knows he is being watched.

Next Post Tomorrow: Character Building: Part II. Images and Impressions.

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About lesleyjjackson

Author, Short Story Writer and Poet - Offers help to new, confused and blocked writers
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