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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Character Description

One of the biggest challenges, and debates, in the writing world is about how much, or how little, to describe. It's especially true when it comes to people. Stephen King says description should start in the writer's mind and end in the reader's. While his descriptions aren't quite as detailed as I wish they were, something that bothers me is that he often doesn't describe characters again and I tend to forget what they look like. Is he bald? Is she fat? Are they an old couple, young couple? Sometimes he gives reminders, but not often enough.

The old rule of storytelling is "show, don't tell." Most of the time I think this holds true. Don't tell me the hero is tired or winded; show me him panting, hands gripping his knees and bent over trying to catch his breath, wanting to ignore the pain from the stitch developing in his side. I believe, however, that when it comes to character description, it's okay to tell and not show. We do that when we describe places and objects. It's okay for people too.

There are two basic approaches when it comes to describing people: the reflection (tell) approach and the action (show) approach. These aren't the actual terms for them but they are what I use. In reflection, a character starts their daily routine and sees themselves in the bathroom mirror, or catches their reflection in a shop window. The author then goes on to describe the person. I'll use an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, The Super School Uniform, to describe the main character Hina, a middle school student. "As Hina watched Ami approach, she couldn't help but think how different the two of them were in appearance. Where Ami was short and skinny, Hina was half a head taller, her body broader and softly muscled, a result of years of playing volleyball. To Hina, Ami's dress looked it had been a rice bag in a former life, a drab brown that covered her from neck to ankles. Hina's clothes were bright: underneath a pair of jean she wore tights, one leg neon green and the other striped in white and pink. Her shirt was a rich blue and hung off one shoulder, revealing the strap of the black undershirt beneath. Unlike Ami's limp hair, Hina's was styled and tied up in a side ponytail, a black bow with the Roni logo written in bright pink."

Not perfect, but a slight variation on the reflection approach. Others suggest using action to showcase character description. Using Hina again, here is an example. "Hina had decided to wear the colored tights, which had one neon green leg and one leg striped pink and white. She pulled the rich blue shirt over her head, adjusting it because it was designed to slip off one shoulder. She didn't care that it didn't cover her softly muscled arms. She had been playing volleyball for years and was proud of her body. She pulled her black hair into a side ponytail and searched for her favorite bow: a black plastic one with the Roni logo standing out in hot pink lettering." The point is, you showcase their description as they move; tying up their hair, straightening their suit, adjusting their tie, etc. This "showing" approach has some validity. I think it is best suited for the main character, maybe two characters but really no more than that. It should also be used to showcase characterization and personality. Maybe the character has self-image/body issues, maybe they are a fashion fantastic. In any case, the action approach should reveal character at the same time it is describing the person. But what if you're starting your story with the protagonist in action; maybe running through the streets because they are late for work, or in the middle of a battle? Then I don't think the action approach is best. Just tell the reader what the person looks like and move on. That is an advantage of the reflection approach, just tell and get on with moving the story forward. I think the tell approach also works for most of the characters, especially minor characters. If the town sheriff shows up to a crime scene but he isn't the main character, describe him and move on. We don't do the show/action approach with buildings or cars. Ferraris don't run their wipers over their glassy windshields to get rid of the rain. We simply describe what a Ferrari looks like. Why not do that with characters? I think is much more telling of a character is what that person is always doing with their clothes. An example would be the "Picard Maneuver," the downward tugging of Captain Picard's uniform whenever he stood up, as seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Something else that I feels need to be done, and I admit I have to pay attention to this when I write, is reminding the reader what the characters look like. King often describes a character, then doesn't remind the reader again what they look like until much later. I like to be reminded about every chapter or two. The description doesn't need to be lengthy, just little references to their main features; like skin tone, or build, or size, whatever distinct characteristic makes them stand out. While reading Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, he referenced character descriptions quite a number of times. I never forgot that Daisy was small and pixieish, Fat Charlie's dad wore loud clothes, and so on.

Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Leave a comment and as always, thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I prefer the show method, even for minor characters , because it gives a certain depth to the character and the scene.

    I do like to be reminded of what characters look like, but not incessantly. I've had that happen too.

    Anansi Boys is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman stories. Fat Charlie...I laugh every time I think about him. :D