When asked to describe a character, most people run-down a checklist of physical attributes. Height, hair color, eye color, wardrobe. These can be astute and concrete observations. Well written prose–that sadly glances off the reader’s psyche like a BB off an electrical transformer.
(Yes, don’t ask why I had the bright idea of shooting BB’s at electrical transformers as a kid. They had it coming, okay!)
The over-attention and specificity to physical attributes clouds the description of the characters. It’s a description of outward-ness, but not WHO THAT CHARACTER IS. It’s the difference between describing a character versus describing character.
Here’s a magic trick:
I’m going to turn the notion of HOW to properly describe a character on its head. For many, this will seem backwards. We are taught to Show, Don’t Tell, and to do so with concrete accurateness. Often, this becomes too literal. You wind up describing what you SEE, rather than describing what a character IS LIKE.
I’ve teased you long enough. I’m going to leave you with one example. A recent example from Stephen King’s latest novel FINDERS KEEPERS.
Most of the people on Sycamore Street were so wedded to their televisions once prime time started that they wouldn’t have noticed a UFO if one landed on their lawn, but that wasn’t true of Mrs. Muller; the Bellamy’s next-door neighbor had raised snooping to a fine art. So he went there first.
“Why look who it is!” she cried when she opened the door … just as if she hadn’t been peering out her kitchen window when Morris pulled into the driveway. “Morrie Bellamy! Big as life and twice as handsome!”
Morris produced his best aw-shucks smile. “How you doin, Mrs. Muller?”
She gave him a hug which Morris could have done without but dutifully returned. Then she turned her head, setting her wattles in motion, and yelled, “Bert! Bertie! It’s Morrie Bellamy!”
From the living room came a triple grunt that might have been a how ya doin.
I’ve taken this section completely out of context from the book. The only physical description is “setting her wattles in motion,” which is a gem. But even with such a limited physical description, can’t you picture Mrs. Muller? Don’t you know who she is?
This is her introduction. Can you guess what type of character she is going to be? Do you have some inkling of the type of problems (SEE ALSO: Conflict) she is going to create?
On top of that, not only does the first sentence describe Mrs. Muller, but by contrast describes the community that Morrie lives in. That sentence is a two-fer.
There is another oft-overlooked technique at work. That of how characters view each other.
The hug line is doing this (among other things). It describes Mrs. Muller’s character (the type of person quick with a hug). Describes Morrie (his aversion to it). And also describes the relationship between the two characters.
This passage illustrates great character description at work. Great character description is NOT about “description,” rather about conflict, suspense, and intrigue.
Think about these ideas the next time you are describing your main character’s A-frame skirt.
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