In many of the books I read as a child, character description came off a bit too formulaic—what she was wearing, the color of her hair and eyes, how pretty or athletic she was, and so on. Next character exposition, same treatment. Sure, I got clear pictures on what the actors in the story looked like, but there was a problem: by using the same process for description each time, nobody in the books stood out.
I haven’t done my job as a writer if I don’t make each character distinctive and necessary to the narrative.
I also like to slip details about each of them into the story in ways that give the reader something to think about. In this story on the Amwriting blog, I wrote:
My friend Gabby noticed me assessing Carolyn and her entourage.
“Realistic expectations, my friend,” she said, uncrinkling the cellophane off her sandwich—today it was chicken salad wrapped in lettuce leaves. She held it in her tiny olive fingers like a musical instrument she would play instead of lunch she’d eat.
I’ve got a bit of dialogue, the kind of meal that she’s comfortable eating and how she goes about eating it, her nickname, and a brief physical description. There are discrete descriptors here, but I’ve left open enough room for the audience to fill in the gaps and interpret Gabby with their own vision.
That said, writers need to have a crystal clear picture of each character in their mind’s eye. What are their motivations, limitations, strengths, most embarrassing moments? What does their bedroom look like? How close or far apart are their self-image and other people’s experience of them? At what point would they lie to protect themselves? What kinds of scars do they carry around with them? Which part of their body do they hate the most? Yes, age, ethnicity, gender, class, and generation are important and we must identify them as authors. But readers connect with how a character responds to her environment.
The kind of blouse a character is wearing is not very interesting on its own, unless we get some significance about the wearer. Is it totally inappropriate for the setting? Is it a borrowed item? Is it threadbare? If the shirt is just a shirt, consider leaving it out. Readers, generally, will clothe characters automatically, even if we never describe a stitch of fabric.
Okay, so my guidelines when writing fictional characters try to take the small moments into account, presuming there’s something larger we can extrapolate from them. These include:
Dialogue—First, dialogue must be speakable. Second, specific dialogue must fit the character’s world and experience. Third, dialogue should help show who the character is and be consistent. Fourth, it should help push the plot in some way. Alfred Hitchcock was fond of saying something like, two men talking about baseball is boring unless you know there’s a ticking time bomb under their table. For me, I like to emphasize differences between the characters with the words they speak. Dialogue also lets users glimpse into those characters’ minds no matter whether the narrative is framed in first or third person. But it leaves open ambiguity, personalities that are at cross-purposes, or people with internal conflict. Sometimes there is no better way to show a character than with a strong segment of dialogue.
Actions—Every story has conflict, and every conflict provides an opportunity for the characters to respond according to what makes sense for them. Fight or flight, a confession, manipulation, self-imposed isolation, breaking out a disguise; whatever the impulse, how characters behave can tell readers more about their inner workings than the statements they make. Robust verbs here help clarify those intentions, especially when they’re signals from the writer/narrator and not the character herself. Does she creep along, stroll, prance, tiptoe? I try to avoid verbs that leave open too much ambiguity, especially when the behavior is pivotal.
Physical description—I know I panned this at the beginning of this post, but what frustrates me isn’t knowing eye color itself, it’s whether those descriptions are pat or routine. Maybe I’m still stuck on Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, but I do enjoy descriptions of hands, because they can say so much about a person in such an accessible way. I also tend toward indirect description to give readers more to digest and visualize—does the character have to reach for a teacup on a shelf, or have trouble threading a needle because his hands are so large? Is the driver’s seat pushed all the way back to accommodate her long legs or is she afraid to swim because her small body gets tugged by currents too easily? These are much more interesting and specific than telling us someone is 58 inches tall, and they can provide insight into the character at the same time.
If a story is getting a lot of rejections, the first thing to check is the character work. Editors and agents who connect well with the actors in a narrative tend to like those stories better, and will often give at least a little guidance on where to make adjustments. However, when professional readers can’t attach to the protagonist and supporting cast, there’s often too little to work with to provide anything other than a form rejection. But don’t use this as the minimum reason for focusing on character. Write great characters who haunt your mind, and care enough to give readers a proper picture of your ghosts.