Characterization is something I’ve talked about before. I think strong characters are absolutely essential to good stories. If you want readers to believe in your stories, it’s important for each Gentle Reader to believe in your characters.
Think of it this way: the characters in your stories don’t exist at all until you describe them. You start to breathe life into them once you’ve written those first words of description. How well you do that determines whether they are seen as stick figures or real people.
I’ve been told the characters in my stories are well described and believable. I’m proud of that.
Take this excerpt from my Gold Medal winning novel, Reichold Street.
I was already sitting on the curb under a big oak tree, trying to find relief in occasional humid puffs of air. A battered gray panel truck pulled up across the street, and signaled its stop with a tortuous squeal. An angular middle-aged man slowly unwound from the driver’s seat. Garish sunlight lit the edges of his hair. It made halos of his tight, graying curls and gleamed brightly from the center of his balding crown.
Standing there in the street, he put his hands firmly on his hips and stared past the collection of mismatched dents and rust on his beat-up Chevy. He didn’t acknowledge my presence. He merely perched his sunglasses on top of his head and methodically chewed a toothpick as he stared at the sole object of his attention: the old white clapboard house across the street.
I smiled and thought: “Hello, Toothpick Man.”
Appeal to All of Your Reader’s Senses
When you describe your characters, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details you provide must appeal to our senses.
Phrases that merely label (like middle-aged) bring no clear image to our minds, since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues. That’s why I wrote the line:
An angular middle-aged man slowly unwound from the driver’s seat.
While angular is a good beginning description, it doesn’t go far enough. By adding … slowly unwound from the driver’s seat … the reader begins to make associations as you enable their mind’s eye to actually visualize the character doing something.
The character already seems like he might be tall, thin (angular, not heavy) and moves deliberately.
The image your reader has might not be exactly the same one you have as the author, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s the beauty of writing. Each reader brings his own interpretation to each character.
A good author strengthens his physical descriptions by making details specific, selecting those that create the most revealing impression.
Garish sunlight lit the edges of his hair. It made halos of his tight, graying curls and gleamed brightly from the center of his balding crown. That kind of description paints a much stronger picture than the bland phrase … balding guy with gray hair.
As you describe your characters, if you want them to become real to each Gentle Reader, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality.
A character’s immediate surroundings can also provide the backdrop for sensory and other significant details that shape the description of the character himself. One well-chosen physical trait or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images.
Standing there in the street, he put his hands firmly on his hips and stared past the collection of mismatched dents and rust on his beat-up Chevy. He didn’t acknowledge my presence. He merely perched his sunglasses on top of his head …
Characters can also reveal their inner lives … their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations … by the objects they choose or carry.
… and methodically chewed a toothpick as he stared at the sole object of his attention: the old white clapboard house across the street.
It’s also true that description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.
I smiled and thought: “Hello, Toothpick Man.”
Techniques such as this abound for describing a character indirectly through the reflections of other characters.
Actions Are Also Important Elements
In some cases, actions, along with pertinent environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words your characters might speak.
Writers of effective dialogue often include pauses, voice inflections and repetitions to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. They can also include gestures.
For instance, in paragraphs not far after those you just read:
… an ancient brown Hudson, the ‘51 or ’52 sedan model that looked like a giant metal cockroach, pulled up behind Toothpick Man.
It rattled and spat dark, oily-smelling smoke all over the street, then wheezed, almost in relief, when the ignition was turned off and it could finally shudder to a stop.
Toothpick Man walked over to it. He strutted, really, with a broad grin on his face. Leaning into the open driver’s window, he held the woman driver by the back of her bleached-blonde head and softly kissed her. After the kiss, he opened the driver’s door like a gentleman but, as the driver was attempting to get out of the car, he reached down and fondled her ample behind.
She jumped at his touch, her brow an angry furrow.
Not a word is spoken … but including details such as these will deepen your character description.
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