Monday, 21 May 2012

Writing Characters Worth Reading

Characters are the key to your story. You want readers to connect with your main characters as quickly as possible. They should be able to see them, know them and be interested in them.

The easiest way to do this is with clichés, which is what often gets put on the page. Dave’s unhappy at work. Belinda’s in love with her boss. Phil wants to be left alone. These sorts of things tell you something vague and indeterminate... and instantly forgettable. 

Also, bland (if accurate) description is very popular. Hairstyle, eye colour, body-type. But the fact she has long, golden hair down to her waist, or hazel eyes flecked with gold is like being shown a photograph of someone you don’t know: meaningless.

If you want the character to really make a strong first impression you need to find a way to get under the reader’s skin. How do you do that?

If your character is fairly normal, nothing particularly outstanding to tell the reader, just portraying them accurately isn’t going to be enough. Michelle was of average height with wild, fiery red hair like her father and almond-shaped eyes like her mother's. This is bad, blah, tedious description.

There's nothing wrong with it. But there's nothing right with it either. Because while it gives you a pretty good idea of what Michelle looks like, it doesn't make you think: Red hair and almond eyes? There's someone I want to follow around for 300 pages. 

And you need to describe your MC in such a way that the reader DOES think that. 

Before we go any further, I should point out that it really helps to have a good idea of who the character is. If you only get to know your characters after you write the story, you may have to wait until you’ve finished that first draft before you get to this point.

Then write a paragraph of  solid description, really paint a picture of what your character looks like.

Now throw it away, but keep that picture of what they look like in your head.

Okay, now write another description of the character, this time using no adjectives.

No size, no colour, no shapes, no numbers, no feelings.

What is your character doing? What is your character doing that tells the reader something interesting about them? How does their physicality impact the thing they’re doing?

Here’s an example of what I mean:
John buckled the sword belt around his waist. He had to breathe out to stop it slipping down to his feet. An extra thick shirt would take care of it. He walked around with the tip of the sword scraping across the floor, even when he stood on his toes.
So here I’m indicating he’s quite short and thin. At the same time, I’m creating a scene that informs the rest of the story too (apparently John may not be ready to go into battle).

Working out a way to do this is more difficult than saying: John was too small to be a knight. But it achieves a lot more.

By the way, it may seem like I’m saying you should show not tell, but I’m not.

There are times when showing is better than telling, and vice versa, but that is not my point.

If that's the message you're getting then you aren't paying attention (or I'm explaining poorly, but for the sake of argument let's say it's you, not me).
When introducing your characters to the reader, in order to make maximum impact they have to be doing something interesting. You can ‘show’ or ‘tell’ the reader what that thing is, but first and foremost the reader will judge the character based on what they’re doing and how interesting it is.

If the character is brushing their teeth, and you show them brushing their teeth, and we have a very clear picture of the state of their teeth, nobody is going to care, because someone brushing their teeth is boring.

The key to making a character stand out isn’t to make sure they are clearly seen, it’s to make sure what they’re doing is worth seeing. And then — and this is the important bit for establishing your character in the reader’s mind — using their particular physical attributes (size, strength, hair length, eye-shape or whatever) in the execution of that task.
Comments always welcome and replied to. Questions always answered (not necessarily the right answer, but something). If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Carol Bodensteiner said...

Good timing on this post! I'm heading back to the beginning to do another rewrite on my novel and this is a useful reminder of how to think about my characters. Thanks.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Show what's inside not outside.
And hey, one time my lack of description of the physical works in my favor!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, gotta avoid the cliches!

Anonymous said...

I like your advice about writing a paragraph on your character without using adjectives, thank you for that. It's something I can definitely use and work on.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This is something I'm struggling with right now. I am definitely going to apply the part re writing a paragraph describing the character without using adjectives.

And this is excellent - Is this someone the reader will want to follow around for 300 pages? Is it someone I want to follow around for 300 pages? :)

mooderino said...

@Carol - you're very welcome.

@Alex - inside or outside, just make it interesting.

@Laura - not always so easy when the cliche seems to sum things up so well.

@Sterling - can be quite a tricky thing to pull off.

@Madeline - you're right, you have to find the character interesting too.

Randy said...

Good post. This is definately something I could improve upon.

Gail said...

Great post. Good tips since I need help with character development. I can only write short stories, the thought of a book is overwhelming.

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! There are few things more dreadful for readers than to meet characters as if the writer is describing them to a police sketch artist.

LD Masterson said...

Okay, time to go back to the old WIP and see if I gave too much outer description and not enough inner.

mooderino said...

@Randy - thanks.

@Gail - short stories are a good place to start.

@word nerd -it does often feel that way. As though knowing what someone looks like

@LD - fortunately you only need to look at the first appearance of a character to see if this is a problem or not.

Ted Cross said...

I rarely describe my characters, or at least not the main ones. I do find minor ways of getting across elements of their appearances. I believe in using strict 3rd, so a character has almost no reason to be considering their own looks--they've lived with their looks all their lives, so unless something is unusual, why should they be thinking about it? And I'll never use the 'look in the mirror' cliche!

So, every so often I get someone telling me I don't describe enough. Maybe I'll get around to it someday.

mooderino said...

@Ted - as I mention above, using physicality within action allows you to get across key information on the MC's appearance. If that's important to you.

Maryann Miller said...

Such a helpful post. I hate what I call the laundry list of descriptions of characters and places we read in some books. It is almost as if the author says, "wait a minute while I give you a snapshot of this person or this room."

Julie Dao said...

I always learn something new when I visit your blog! Your posts are always so helpful. The main character in my WIP is a pretty ordinary girl... but I put her in a not-so-ordinary situation right on page one, so hopefully that will make her seem much more interesting!

Tony Acree said...

I will start rewrites on my novel next month and thanks to your post, I will look at how I use description differently. Thanks for the education.

Cherie Larkins said...

Excellent post!

mooderino said...

@maryann - I think you can get away with a snapshot if you've got other stuff going on. But it's very easy to do it poorly.

@Julie - you can put her in an ordinary situation and make it work too, but you have to make sure what she's doing tells us something interesting about her.

@Tony - you're welcome.

@Cherie - Cheers!

Sophia Richardson said...

Your example worked: I really want to hear more about this knight's struggles!

mooderino said...

@Sophia - The Legend of Shorty will be on the bookshelves soon (not really).

nutschell said...

awesome tips! I often tend to focus more on my characters actions and dialogue than their physical traits--when I can totally combine them to create a better scene:)

Margo Berendsen said...

I spend probably more time than anything else on those crucial scenes where important characters get introduced. This is so important (you are giving away too many good craft tips!!!) I am always thinking, what do people do that's interesting, unusual, that would make them memorable as soon as you meet them in a book.

Ciara said...

This is so informative. Great post!! It helped me with something in my book today. It just wasn't clicking and when I read this I had an aha moment. :) Thanks!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Before I start plotting and writing the first draft, I get to know my characters inside and out. I find it helps me with plotting. :)

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

I like this post. AND, you were very clear at what your point was... at least to me anyway.

I really liked the way you described your knight. I knew immediately he was too thin and short... WELL DONE.

I LOVE description and it's a specialty of mine, especially in my fantasy work. But the next time I write I scene, I will remember this.


Once again, I leave your blog learning something new. I really appreciate it.

John Wiswell said...

I'll let bland character description slide if the character goes on to do something interesting. The so-so looking character can say something hilarious after being introduced, or wind up stabbing Grandma. I at least like to think I'm so tolerant, but then the novel I've just begun writing introduces three characters - one splattered in orange paint, one in a tuxedo and carrying a sword, and the last showing up to prison naked. So maybe appearances indicative of personality are deeper in my subconscious than I want to believe.

Heads up - Para5 opens with "If you're" instead of "If your"

mooderino said...

@nutscell-alhtoug to be honest if the story is interesting enough you can pretty much do it anyway you want. I think that's the real secret to writing. But that would make this a very short one-post blog.

@Margo-it really pays off if you can make what they're doing interesting, just wish it was easier to come up with.


@Stina-I think the writer has to know (and like) the charater before the reader can.

@Michael - thanks, man. Always love your comments (and your blog).

@John - I do think you can get away with a quick basic description of a character if you have something entertaining going on. Reader's aren't going to get bored in one sentence. But too often it's bland description leading into bland action as a way to establish normal life (before the story takes off), and that's a real killer.

p.s. thanks for the heads up. That typo is the bane of my life.

Summer said...

I can't find a follow by email button- am I missing it? Think you would want to stick one on here for me?

mooderino said...

@Summer-certainly. It's below the GFC widget. Let me know if it works.

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Dinah Hagar said...

When i rarely explain my figures, or at least certainly not the principle people. I really do find small means of receiving across portions of the looks. I do believe in using rigorous finally, therefore some sort of figure features almost no purpose being thinking of their particular looks--they've existed with their appears to be all of their life, therefore except if some thing is usually abnormal, exactly why whenever they end up being considering it? And I'll never ever use the 'look within the mirror' cliche! term paper writing services

John Bishop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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