Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Making Characters

          This is the fun part. Kind of like the Build-A-Bear Workshop, you build your own character. Okay, maybe that was a wimpy comparison. But really this is one of my favorite things about writing. Populating your story world.

           Some people think you should know what your character's physical appearance first. They even stress it in their writing. There is the paragraph, about a page long, that describes almost every outward feature of the character.


           If you do add many details about your character's physical appearance, please, for the reader's sake, sprinkle, don't dump. I think of it this way: If I don't like reading it, then why would I write it that way and put my future readers through it?

           I personally try not to add a lot of detail about my characters' physical appearance. Unless, of course, it's essential to the plot (in which case, disregard since the whole point is that story trumps all). Sprinkles are good, but too many sprinkles means not enough cake. People are not their outward appearances. People are the stuff inside of them. The loves, the fears, the goals, the failures, the pasts, the futures, the regrets, the hopes. So are characters. And when you emphasize that, people will see your character for who he/she is, not physical appearance, but who he/she really is.

           When you read, do you put yourself in the POV character's shoes? I do it all the time. I always pretend I'm the POV character (it's okay, I know I'm strange). I read a year or two ago on a blog (The Kill Zone, to be precise) about one of the authors who said he rarely describes his character's physical features for the exact reason that it helps readers envision themselves as the POV characters. Many of his readers even told him that they see his protagonist looking a lot like themselves. Not that many physical feature details has ever hindered me from imagining myself as the POV character. But I. . .may have a frightfully wild imagination.

           I read recently on another blog (Taryn Writes) about character descriptions in first person writing. And since she says it better than me, I'll just quote her:

           Do you go around imagining yourself doing everything you do throughout the day? I like first person because you can slip into the head of a character. You aren't watching the character. You are experiencing BEING the character."

           I like that last sentence. Though I think as all writers should try to give the reader the experience of being the character, first person or not, to the best of their ability.

           And don't take me wrong, a little is good. Sprinkles are still good, just not too many. Basic things, like hair, height, anything that might be unusual, etc. And if you have various POV characters (Oddball has more than one POV character), so easy. Describe your protagonist from some other character's POV. The other character will not view the protagonist the same way the protagonist views him-/herself.

           At a writing seminar I sat in, the speaker says, "And no cheating. No the protagonist-looks-in-the-mirror tricks." My friend and I look at each other say, "Oops." We had long ago read each others' mirror tricks.

           So what do you do besides cheating mirror tricks if you don't have other POV characters? I don't know. The speaker didn't say. He left us with, "be creative." Gee, thanks. But I suppose there are ways around it. Like if you're protagonist is particularly tall or short, some other character is bound to remark on it at some time. Because that's what happens in real life, right? If you're tall people ask you to reach things located on high shelves, you see the tops of people's heads, and others ask you what's going when they can't see through a crowd. If you're short, you can't go through life without hearing at least one short joke, you probably ask tall people to reach things, people can't find you in a crowd, and although you can't see over one, you can probably squeeze to the front of it. There are ways of showing it; it just takes extra thinking. As if we don't think enough.

           I'll tell you how I do it with Oddball a little later. And soon we shall also have the cake of the character. Who the character really is. Other self: The cake of the character? Really? Self: I was alluding to the metaphor earlier: too many sprinkles means not enough cake. Other self: And why you said that, I'll never know. Ludicrous. You certainly don't get these ideas from me. Self: I thought it quite clever actually. Other self: Well, it was quite stupid. Don't do it again.


  1. Very good points. For the book I just published I originally had a mirror scene to describe one of the characters. I later discarded it and found another way around it.

    Describing a character is tricky. There is a balance and it is hard to find. Usually I will leave it out and not notice it until someone asks me what the character looks like. It is just I see them so clearly in my mind I always seem to think the reader can as well and don't bother with looks. (And other times a dashing character will go all through the book making sure everyone knows how handsome he is.)

    1. Dashing characters do have an affinity for bragging. They can take care of themselves, I suppose. :)

  2. Hi Ashley!
    I'm Cait's friend from The Book Chewers. Just found your blog =)

    I like to know what characters look like, but then again I don't. I think it's important to have vague details (are they dark and fair? big or small?) but it's nice if the writer let's the reader develop their own picture of the characters. =)

    1. Hmm, hmm. Rogue apostrophe there ;)

    2. I'm so glad you're here! I agree some details are good, just not an overwhelming amount. Besides one of the joys of reading is you get to use your imagination, right? Until the book is made into a movie. :)


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