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choppy
July 7th, 2006, 10:26 PM
I thought I'd start a thread on character description.

What do you do to make your fictional characters vivid and memorable? What kinds of things do you focus on in descriptions? Do you concentrate on physical attributes, or do you go for internal characteristics and how do you bring them across?

I ask this because I've noticed that a lot of beginners tend to focus on the physical stuff. Almost without fail, the first two things that come up are hair and eye colour - which, in my opinion, are actually pretty arbitrary. Does a red-head feel more heartbroken than a blonde when she finds her fiance cheating on her? Does a man with steel blue eyes see any more fear in his victim before he pulls the trigger on his gun than a man with caramel brown?

And finally, how do you go about drawing out all of this information in a little space?

PlanetRetcon
July 7th, 2006, 11:25 PM
I like to not describe my characters per-se. I don't like reading, nor do I like writing, a paragraph where the character is described. I want "He ran his scrawny fingers through blonde hair, and grinned oddly as he peered at her over the rims of his glasses" to "He had blonde hair, glasses, and he smiled a lot."

Rhiannon
July 8th, 2006, 12:22 AM
As far as character description goes, I'll usually give the reader a general sense of appearance right off the bat. Nothing too detailed, but, depending on the circumstances, hair colour, build, height, facial expression. I don't usually give the eye colour, unless it's really noticeable or remarkable, because I know I don't often notice people's eye colour in real life, so why should I bother mentioning it in my writing?

Hair colour and the like may be arbitrary, but it does give the reader a mental image to work with and I like people to be able to see the character as I'm envisioning him/her. Because I like the reader to see the characters as I see them, I like to get the physical appearance stuff out of the way pretty early on, as I wouldn't want anyone to go through the entire story thinking X was a blond, when really he was a redhead and then have to completely reimagine the character.

As for personality, I mostly just try to let that come out in the character's actions and dialogue and let the reader make his/her own judgements on them.

And as for making memorable characters... I just try my best. Try to make them human, try to know their motivations, try to get to know the inside of their head and then hope for the best.

Michael B
July 8th, 2006, 02:15 AM
As for personality, I mostly just try to let that come out in the character's actions and dialogue and let the reader make his/her own judgements on them.

And as for making memorable characters... I just try my best. Try to make them human, try to know their motivations, try to get to know the inside of their head
This is what I try to do as well. Often all you will know about one of my characters are their name, sex and may be race and/or nationally and/or age. Occasionally some other point will be mentioned, but beyond that nothing. What they are thinking and what they are doing/trying to do is more important than how they look, at least to me.

JamesL
July 8th, 2006, 05:14 AM
The most important thing to bear in mind about character description is to show, not tell. A basic example would be to write "the wind ruffled his black hair" rather than "Jack had black hair."

You want to avoid long info dumps where you bore the reader with a two-page description of the character. You want to get the same info across, but in a more active, interesting, subtle way.

I started reading a book recently where just 3 pages in, the author spent several pages describing what the character was like, her likes and dislikes, her temperament, etc. I was appalled and put the book down. That is just lazy, amateurish writing. No one is interested in reading a biography a mere 3 pages into the book (if at all) and so this sort of thing should be avoided.

Dawnstorm
July 8th, 2006, 08:00 AM
The most important thing to bear in mind about character description is to show, not tell. A basic example would be to write "the wind ruffled his black hair" rather than "Jack had black hair."

You want to avoid long info dumps where you bore the reader with a two-page description of the character. You want to get the same info across, but in a more active, interesting, subtle way.

I started reading a book recently where just 3 pages in, the author spent several pages describing what the character was like, her likes and dislikes, her temperament, etc. I was appalled and put the book down. That is just lazy, amateurish writing. No one is interested in reading a biography a mere 3 pages into the book (if at all) and so this sort of thing should be avoided.


It may be currently out of fashion, but I wouldn't mind 3 pages of character bio myself (of course, I'm assuming it's well written).

I also don't see what's inherently better in "The wind ruffled..." as opposed to "...had...". It depends on the section: is it scenic, panoramic, expository?

Then things are quite convoluted. For example, I've once read a story where a scene tells us about a character to show us the setting.


Lyndon Badou: always: puts his left shoe on first

works much better on sunny days,

has lucky things happen on Tuesdays,

has an onion-seed/cream-cheese bagel before Big Cases

The best superstitions are the ones we write for ourselves.

Lyndon Badou: has: never had a good experience in an Indonesian restaurant. Meaning: when his Toyota flags him that the defendants' counsels want to meet him in the Rasa Sayang off Leicester Square, Lyndon Badou knows that he is going to get shafted.

Except for the strange use of colons, I find this brilliant (and I don't doubt that the colons are there for a reason, but they don't work for me.) The only peace of showing is: "Toyota flags", and that occurs in a subsidiary clause.

I don't like the "show, don't tell" slogan. I appreciate the sentiment, but the statement is misleading. I associate it with fast-food writing, where the author stands behind the counter with a fabricated smile and sells plastic food.

The irony is that within my own writing I tend to go the scenic approach, to such an extent that - in critiques - I get more "not enough exposition".

For characterisation this means:

- dialogue and interaction: by contrasting characters you get a two-for-one deal: misunderstandings, different priorities etc. always use one word in two functions (different connotations, different prominence) and the difference between the two characters defines either (but only in relation to each other, and only in this situation; any inferrances beyond that I leave to the reader.)

- Point-of-view: I tend to do third limited with a tendency towards "objective", but usually any evaluative or interpretative word is attributed to a specific character. In third limited (and even more prominent in 1st person), every word about the world is also a word about a character. (The problem with this approach is that some points-of-view make me work while others flow more freely. I'm unsure whether this causes an imbalance or not.) A key element in PoV is prejudice, conjecture and guesses.

So my most often used method of characterisation is "contrasting characters without ever giving definite traits".

In the context above, I could have both "He had black hair," (HHBH) and "The wind ruffled his black hair." (WRBH) Both sentences would be attributed to a PoV character. Both are more likely to be the PoV character observing someone with black hair than the PoV character having black hair, but there may be situations where PoV characters reflect on their own hair color. If it is the PoV character's hair that's black, I'm more likely to have HHBH as I find it hard to understand why a PoV character whose hair is ruffled by the wind would think of his hair colour (of course, he could have just dyed it and he could be striking a dramatic pose). If the PoV character is observing someone with black hair, HHBH is more likely to occur very near the beginning of a text (unless something happens that makes mentioning hair colour singularly important - i.e. that changes the PoV characters attention structure). WRBH is more likey to be within the action proper.

It's a bit more complicated than that, but I'm about to confuse myself. And of course, that's only an analysis of my favoured way of writing (third limited or first). A more overtly omnisicient approach would change the rules. So would a more clearly objective approach. Or the more exotic stuff...

But the gist of it is: I characterise by contrasting characters before a setting/scene.

Hereford Eye
July 8th, 2006, 08:40 AM
H.E.'s 103d Law of Writing: Character description is always a function of story requirements; if it doesn't fit in the story, it is poorly done.

Therefore, out-of-context discussions generally lead to arbitrary, tunnel-visioned, seemingly omni-applicable but actually-useful-only-in-a-setting that-supports-their-use rules/guidelines. A writer must be aware of all the opinions because H.E.'s 1st Law states: A writer must know all the rules so as to be able to explain why she or he didn't follow them.:)

Mock
July 8th, 2006, 09:10 AM
I started reading a book recently where just 3 pages in, the author spent several pages describing what the character was like, her likes and dislikes, her temperament, etc. I was appalled and put the book down. That is just lazy, amateurish writing. No one is interested in reading a biography a mere 3 pages into the book (if at all) and so this sort of thing should be avoided.

Like The Outsiders!

MrBF1V3
July 8th, 2006, 10:33 AM
H E Well now I know the first and the 103rd. I only have 101 to go :rolleyes:

I often have a detailed descrition of my characters, but not in the story. I may refer to this descrition when it fits, or I may make changes in the middle of the story when suddenly I realize it would be cool if my character had a hook for a hand, or lop sided ears.

As for what I fail to include in the confines of the story, I leave those to the reader's imagination.

B5

scifirules
July 10th, 2006, 11:13 PM
H.E.'s 103d Law of Writing: Character description is always a function of story requirements; if it doesn't fit in the story, it is poorly done.

What about scene description? I don't really like long character description, but when I'm reading or writing, I usually like to have a quick paragraph describing the scenery. Something like this (and I'm pulling this out of my nose):


He entered the office. It was large and circular, with a curving oak desk sitting across the room. The walls were adorned with paintings of planets and galaxies, while genetically enhanced fish swam lazily in tanks at opposite ends of the office, their genetically enhanced scales flashing propoganda and soft drink advertisements.

Would that take away from the story too much? I've never had a problem with it, just as long as it is one, quick paragraph. The same could go for describing characters, though I've never been very good at doing that...