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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Describing Characters in Novels

Writing techniques for novels have evolved over the centuries. "It was a dark and stormy night" was, in its heyday, a very acceptable opening. Yet, in my opinion, "Once upon a time" is a classic first line for fairy tales and probably will remain that way. So, keep in mind, some ideas regarding descriptions (of people, of places, of things) are more universal than others.

Note: There will always be exceptions. Some ingenious author will use "It was a dark and stormy night" with wild success. That's when it's great to know the "rules" well enough to break them so creatively as to make them work. This writing game is all about doing something new, unique, right?

Opening your book with paragraphs or pages of static description would not be acceptable to most readers nowadays, due to our seven-second-or-less attention spans and all the faster-paced multimedia available to us: streaming music/movies, computer games, Kindle books/games, the Internet as a learning resource or as a social site. And that's just what we can do quite alone with technology at our fingertips. Lots of competition, folks, for our downtime.

Maybe in the 1950s, before everyone had a newfangled TV in the house, you could get away with a slow-starting book, rambling on about too much info which can't be deemed all that important to the plot. For example, like describing every wildflower in the field behind a house which is only there long enough to burn down and start the fire inspector on his hunt for the arsonist.

Just recently I've stopped reading some novels. Unfinished. Removed them from my device. Gasp! Sacrilegious, right? But with my Kindle full of "new" books to choose from, and my limited free time, I should be selective. Plus reading those not-for-me stories violates one of my personal rules about not wasting time, mine or other people's. And I'm not just a reader; I'm also an author, looking for styles and techniques and tips from other authors' books that I can learn from, not to mention the copy editor side of me who loves to find those lines of taut construction which communicate with perfection. Oh, yeah, and I'm the Quote Queen too. So I'm delirious to read great lines, succinct pearls of wisdom on the human condition.

Thus, if the story doesn't grab me at the beginning, I'm pretty sure it won't once I'm deeper into the tale either. I know. Because I've read books all the way to The End that told me from page one how this tale was not to my liking. So I'm yielding to that wise inner voice now. Some authors have the "it" factor I'm looking for in my reading. And I can tell if I see it, feel it, on that first page, even if I can't define "it" for you (or me).

Now for my particular pet peeve: the police-blotter description of any character in a novel. I don't want to read about the main protagonist or even a one-off character as "six foot two, black hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders." First, it's hackneyed. Second, we're supposed to be imaginative authors, creative types. We can surely do better than that. Third, it only gets worse when more adjectives are added to this mix, as in "a lanky and dreamy six foot two, raven jet-black hair, unbelievably bluer-than-blue eyes, with strong broad shoulders that could protect her." Ugh. Can you say "purple prose"?

Besides, that "could protect her" angle irks me to no end. Especially when it's "overall" and not just at this very moment when fighting six against one is some lopsided odds. I'm looking for a strong female lead, not a wimpy woman who wants the man to take care of her in toto. That's a long-winded topic for another post ...

But the only time I think such police-blotter description is appropriate is, indeed, on a police blotter. If you're writing a detective novel, a crime series, etc., and the investigator picks up a file on a missing perp, then, and only then, is it okay to writeand for us, your readers, to read"blond/brown, five ten, 180."

And the mirror description? Don't go there. It's been done. Too many times. It's far from being unique and original. I'd stop reading then for sure. And I wouldn't go back to finish that one either.

In fact, at present, I'm enjoying the internal descriptions of characters, completely void of any physical description at first. And any later clue to their outward appearance is maybe one telling detail, like, "He suspected, with her red hair, that she had a temper under that smile."

I'm loving that.

Plus, even in the books of old, with their purple-prose-enhanced police-blotter descriptions, I bet the mental image I had of the character was not even close to what the author imagined. Haven't you yearned to see that movie based on one of your favorite books only to be totally disappointed in the actor playing your beloved character in that story? So it's better to let the reader form his or her own impression of what these characters look like. No need for the storyteller to be heavy-handed in this area.

So, authors, give your readers room to imagine the outer person of someone who's too blunt or a con artist or not to be trusted or selfish or brave or adventurous or smart or awkward or flirty or childish or manipulative or a bully or standing on a street corner looking lost or bending to feed a stray dog or ... whatever.

For me, I'm going to give insight into who my character is first and foremost, then add later a physical descriptor or two, like what would be noticed above all about this person. And I like tells. We all have them. Surely they speak to some insecurity within us, right? Those psychological details add depths to our imaginary friends without us having to write more than that. Until later. When we reveal their secrets. Pretty cool, right?

"If your vocation isn’t a vacation, then quit, leap, change careers."

Denise Barker, Author, Blogger, Copy Editor
Books that Build Character(s)

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you pales in comparison to what lies inside of you. Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you give someone a book, you don’t give him just paper, ink, and glue.  You give him the possibility of a whole new life. Christopher Morley
The best inheritance you can leave your kids is an example of how to live a full and meaningful life. Dan Zadra

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