Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Step-by-Step - Character Descriptions

Alright, I'm hoping I'll say something intelligent that will help people in their writing endeavours. So, I'm doing something like a tutorial, I guess. Let me know if you have other ideas or any demands on what I should write about next time!


Original version:

The man walked through the door, dragging his feet behind him. He wore glasses and his dark blonde hair hung over them. He had brown eyes and there was a scar on his right ankle. The clothes he wore were simple jeans and a t-shirt. He had no bag but he held a book in his hand.

This isn't too bad, right? But it can be better!

Tips 1: Be Specific (which doesn't mean exhaustive!)

Roger walked through the door, dragging his feet behind him. He wore a pair of Christian Dior glasses and the rat-coloured hair hung over them. In his hands were a copy of The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France.

Imagine your writing as a caricature portrait - choose the traits that best describe your character (or the ones important for what is happening or will happen) and skip the rest. Readers have imagination too. However, be careful to not "forget" important traits, just to later describe them. Readers can easily be annoyed if you suddenly say something that breaks their idea of your character. And that a man carries that kind of book raises questions about why. And readers wondering things (i.e. wanting to find them out) is a very good thing.

Tips 2: Use the Right Verb

Roger stumbled over the threshold. A pair of Christian Dior glasses balanced on his nose and made a constant wrinkle in the rat-coloured hair at his ears. He pressed a copy of The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France to his chest.

To say "stumbled" indirectly says he wasn't exactly picking his feet up from the ground, and gives another kind of atmosphere. It makes it an awkward moment. That the glasses "balanced" instead of being worn shows a certain precariousness. All in all, you can give a lot of atmosphere and suspense if you choose another verb when describing a character (or landscape for that matter). To say "pressing to one's chest" instead of "hold" gives the impression of a shy character - further deepening the stumbled/awkward/dragging his feet thing.

Tips 3: Tie It to Action/Backstory

Roger stumbled over the threshold, almost dropping the Christian Dior glasses that balanced on his nose. There was a constant wrinkle in the rat coloured-hair where the glasses clung to his ears; his mother had always tried to smooth it out. He pressed The Chocolate Addict's Guide To France, determined not to lose it again.

Can't you just tell his overprotective mother was an annoying sweetheart? And where did he lose the book, and why doesn't he want to do it again? The fact that he's almost dropping the glasses justifies that you mention them and erases the "information dump" feel.

Take Notice 1:
An important thing to remember however is that the description is always an observation based on someone observing! What is noticed depends on the person looking at it - I wouldn't know a pair of Christian Dior glasses if they chewed on my butt. A man is likely to notice some parts of female anatomy more than others. Etc. Etc. If you got a detective noting down the people coming inside, he might just do it in the original way I wrote.

Take Notice 2:
If the observer and the person being observed know each other, they aren't likely to notice as much. I barely see if my friends have changed hair cut, or have new clothes, or what colour their hair is. Also, I sure as hell don't sit there thinking through everything they've done in their lives so the reader can find that out. So please don't introduce a character that way.

Thanks for your time and feel free to come with opinions and questions!

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