Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Lately I’ve been plotting and planning my next novel. As part of the process, I fill out an extensive character worksheet for my main characters.
In the planning stages, one of the things I try to do is get a clear picture of what my characters look like. I accomplish this in numerous ways. If my character doesn’t already have a real portrait from history, I pick one from photos of actors or models. I also fill in the physical description part of my character worksheet—making note of every detail (along with synonyms, similes, metaphors, and ways other characters might describe the person).
And yes, part of the description includes eye and hair color. I believe we as writers need to know as much as possible about our characters if we want them to come to life.
However, Michaela Tashjian brought up a great point in a recent review she did on my debut book, The Preacher’s Bride: She said, “When it comes to physical description in many contemporary works, writers often resort to 'hair-colour-eye-colour' descriptions. This is a somewhat elementary approach. In The Preacher's Bride, Ms. Hedlund goes far beyond this scope of mediocre physical description of characters.”
Michaela sites a couple of examples from my book which I’ll share as well:
• Description of Vicar Burton on page 24: His breathing was wheezy, as though he struggled to catch his breath. Whenever this happened, his shoulders hunched further, and his chest sank inward like a bowl.
Michaela says: “The author gives us no description of Vicar Burton's hair, face, or eyes, and yet we have this vivid picture of the way he talks and breathes and are reminded of this every time he speaks up again in the book.”
• Description of Elizabeth’s suitor Samuel Muddle on page 29: Samuel pulled up his breeches, which had a habit if slipping below his protruding belly. He hitched them high above his waistline, as if to give them plenty of sliding room.
Michaela says: “Throughout the story, we are left with next to no description of Samuel except for his protruding belly and overlarge breeches; and yet we are not left wanting for more identification.”
Sometimes we can rely too much on hair and eye color in our descriptions of our characters to the neglect of other techniques. How can we go deeper? Here are some methods to keep in mind when describing our characters:
1. Main characters will likely need hair and eye descriptions (especially in certain genres like romance). In fact, we should help our readers to visualize our main characters correctly right from the start (versus confusing them two-thirds of the way through the book by springing an image on them that might not match the person they’ve already visualized). However, these kinds of basic descriptions can be done in creative snippets that are subtly woven in.
2. Minor characters will probably NOT need hair and eye descriptions (unless hair or eyes play a role in the plot). Otherwise, why bother mentioning them? We can pick much more creative ways to describe them—preferably with traits that add to the story in some way (whether mood, tension, etc.). Blake Snyder in Save The Cat describes this technique by saying, “Make sure every character has ‘A Limp and an Eyepatch’ . . . something memorable that will stick him in the reader’s mind.”
3. Give our characters unique tags. A tag is something that will help identify a character throughout the book. Tags can be physical (a bulbous nose), verbal (a particular phrase only that character uses), characteristic (timidity), or an action (nail-biting).
4. Remember description is only a small part of bringing a character to life. In fact, description alone is not enough. We must weave the sharing of their physical appearance among other techniques—how our characters react to situations, their goals, their method of handling conflict, the way they enjoy life, etc. All of these little things come together to leave an impression in the reader’s mind about who that person really is.
My Summary: Describing our characters is like most aspects of writing—we have to reject the easy (often clichéd) image that comes to our minds first. Instead we need to brainstorm, dig deeper, and find creative, interesting, and unique portrayals that will delight our readers.
How about you? Have you fallen into the eye and hair color description trap? How do you push deeper to find more unique ways of describing your characters?
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