After all, what would Star Wars be if Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan were a kid and an old guy? What would Gone with the Wind be if Rhett and Scarlett were just a guy and some dame? And what will your story be, if you don’t create your characters as fully-fleshed, breathing and feeling human beings?
So let’s meet your characters, shall we?
Ms. Writer, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Character (no gender-bias intended!). Okay Ms. Writer, take a look at your character. How are you going to go about getting to know him? Well, you can always start with the first thing you notice about anybody you meet: their appearance.
Ooh, a little superficial, isn’t it? Well, let’s start on the outside and we can work our way in later!
What does he look like?
I’ve studied a lot about the art of characterization, and many writers seem to fall into two camps: 1) describe the character’s appearance in minute detail, or 2) give as little detail as possible. And depending on your writing style, you may find yourself going to either extreme. Both are fine, as long as the “minute detail” doesn’t translate into “long boring paragraphs,” and as long as “little detail” doesn’t translate into “I can’t tell these characters apart because apparently everybody looks alike!”
The other thing to remember is that no matter how much painstaking detail you put into describing your characters, no matter how lovingly you draw their features with the finest of brushes, no two readers will ever have the same image when they read your story! We all superimpose our own mental images on the people we read about. We just can’t help it – and when you think about it, why would we want to? When we read we are entering the universe created by the writer, but we are also creating a universe all our own. That’s the magic of reading and of writing.
So on the question of “a lot of detail, or a little?” I generally try to aim somewhere in the middle (you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?). I’ve found that there are certain specific details I like to establish for myself, and then I sort of let the rest go. The physical elements that are essential to me are:
Hair color and style
Eye color and shape
Height and overall body shape (weight lifter, swimmer or couch potato)
Any unusal or memorable physical characteristic (manicured fingernails, freckles, a tiny nose like a tulip)
Much more will be communicated about your characters by their attitudes and speech patterns (more on that in future blogs!). But you want to give your reader enough detail to give their imagination something to grab onto. When they read “Maggie,” you want them to know that she’s the girl with red hair and freckles, not the girl with blond hair and glasses.
That’s one reason why it’s good to give your characters unusual physical characteristics: someone with long fingernails might have trouble dialing the phone; someone with freckles might spend more time putting on makeup (if she were self-conscious about it, of course!). But all of these things feed into who the characters are on the inside as well as the outside! Physical characteristics play into attitudes and personality, just as attitude and personality affects the way we appear to others.
Another physical aspect that communicates character is how they move. John Travolta once said that when he goes about creating a character as an actor, he starts with the walk. Think about it: Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction, Chili Palmer from Get Shorty, and of course, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray! Three distinct characters, three distinct ways of communicating characterization simply through motion.
Of course, it’s easy to convey motion in the movies – in writing it’s more of a challenge! A good way to accomplish this is through the use of simile and metaphor:
Simile (saying that something is like something else): “She drove like she was Dale Earnhardt’s long-lost daughter and every street was the Talladega Speedway.”
Metaphor (saying that something is something else): “Not the marrying kind? That’s an understatement! The man was a jackrabbit on Viagra!”
Of course, it can get kind of heavy-handed if you overuse it, but in small doses you will find that your characters begin to leap to life, and right off the page!
Who are some of your favorite fictional characters, and what is it about their physicality that most sticks with you?