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.