Characters…everywhere…poor little lumps of blah scattered across the manuscript like they’d been urked up half-masticated, limp and lifeless and gooey, by a word processor with a hairball and indigestion. Yeah, you’ve seen ‘em. Maybe you’ve made ‘em. Can’t say I haven’t…it’s too easy and tempting to just blurt them out and go on with all that action and suspense and romance and suchlike. That’s where the fun is!
But, doggone it, characters need to breathe and feel and live! You owe it to the lives you’ve created to put a little spark in them. If they just lie there, drab and mundane, taking up space on the page, your readers won’t connect with them and won’t be interested in what they might be about to do. And giving them feelings and thoughts and, well, character will even help you get your own feeling about what direction they’re about to go. The character will frequently lead you to your next plot point if you pay attention. Giving your characters life is one of the most important things to do when you write, and one of the hardest to get right until you form the habit of doing it.
I recently shared another article about Character Craft from The Creative Penn website, and you can find it here if you’d like more. This article is by Rebecca McClanahan and brought to you by the folks at Writer’s Digest. Many more thoughts about the character-building process are laid out quite eloquently, and I recognize problems I’ve had and picked up some good tips. The very first point reminded me of a friend’s novel I read recently, in which he introduced each character with their height, weight, and the color of their hair and eyes. He had a law enforcement background and it showed. Perhaps you don’t always want to be as obvious…mix that stuff up and give your readers a little variety, and they’ll thank you for it by staying engaged and reading more of your stuff. That couldn’t hurt, now could it?
Here’s Ms. McClanahan with more wisdom for you.
11 Secrets to Writing an Effective Character Description
11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through effective character description, including physical and emotional description.
Jan 14, 2015
The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.
Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.
Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.
1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”
It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”
This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.
2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.
It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”