In yesterday’s post we looked at what can go wrong if you add too much detail about your characters, what it is better to leave out and what you need to focus on. This post is a continuation, to show how specific details about a character can be used to your advantage.
Create an Image:
The specific details that you have chosen allow the reader to create an image, a picture of someone in their mind and the more striking and interesting the details, the easier that will be for them to do. Think in pictures and beware of adjectives and adverbs that are not helpful.
His father was a big, hard man who had a habit of walking quickly.
This description does not help us visualize a personality very easily and is not particularly memorable or engaging. It would be better to say something like this:
His father was a giant of a man with eyes like black marble and shoes that clicked as he crossed the floor.
Can you see him a little better, now?
First impressions should be memorable and anything really striking is likely to be noticed. If your character has a long scar on her face and you don’t mention it until later on in the story, this will be jarring for readers because it will get in the way of the mental picture they have already formed.
Decide on a dominant impression:
What impression do you want your character to have on a reader. Is your character confiding? Distant? Secretive? Lonely? Make the impression fit the role that the character will play.See if you can find a characteristic that suggests more than you have said, a habit that suggests anxiety, for example. Now decide whether this impression is going to be a true picture, or if it is a mask to cover the real person underneath. Just as in real life, readers will make assumptions about your character at the start but they can adjust them as they get to know the character, better.
Put your character in a scene:
Showing a character in action will make it easier for you to restrict details about them, whereas describing a character lets you say too much. In fiction, as in life, we don’t discover all there is to know about a person as soon as we meet them. As we see a characters speak and act in front of us we learn more about them and gradually we get a better picture of who they are.
Scenes allow you to combine appearance, action, thought and speech as well as setting, to provide you with multiple ways of revealing character over and above appearance and initial impression. (We will cover all of these in another post)
Appearances can be useful:
Looking through my stories I was amazed to discover how little I mention a character’s appearance. Appearance has tended to be neglected in contemporary fiction in favour of exploring the inner worlds of characters. However, physical details give characters presence and solidity in a story and can be used as clues to what is important to them, their personal tastes and how they view themselves.You can avoid static description here too by conveying appearance as part of the action, showing, for example, how one character reacts to another character’s appearance.
Explore appearance by creating visual pictures of a character’s changing appearance in different circumstances. How does she look walking over hot sand, at breakfast, when she is feeling old. How does he look when he watches television, struggles with grief, or plays a tune on a row of beer bottles. What stands out?
Appearances can be also combined with psychological attributes to indicate changes in a character’s well being. Avoid anything too obvious. Consider using hands and feet to convey character as much as a face. A single outwardly facing foot is more interesting than height or eye colour. Movement is also a good way to convey character and you can draw on words that convey mood or personality like strode or strolled rather than walked.
How would a self-conscious person use their hands? Or a liar, or a flirt? Write a few lines or a paragraph to see what you can come up with.
Study contemporary stories and see how different writers have introduced characters and how they may have dealt with a character’s appearance.
Next Post: ‘Spring Fling is Not Just for Artist’s’ followed soon after by a another post on character:
Problem: ‘There is something fake about my characters. My invented characters never seem to turn into fully realized people. How do I make this happen?