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This week: Are Your Characters Boring?Edited by: LJPC - the tortoise
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This newsletter is about describing characters to make them memorable.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
“I always liked strange characters.”
~ Tim Burton
“If you tell the reader that Bull Beezley is a brutal-faced, loose-lipped bully, with snake’s blood in his veins, the reader’s reaction may be, ‘Oh, yeah!’ But if you show the reader Bull Beezley raking the bloodied flanks of his weary, sweat-encrusted pony, and flogging the tottering, red-eyed animal with a quirt, or have him booting in the protruding ribs of a starved mongrel and, boy, the reader believes!”
~ Fred East
Are You Characters Boring?
Memorable Character Description
Think of the really memorable characters in books, TV, or movies, like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Karl Childers (Sling Blade), Annie Wilkes (Misery), and Norman Bates. These characters have unusual styles, ways of doing things, patterns of speech, and even props they use (like Sherlock’s pipe and House’s cane). These characters are so unusual that we’ll never forget them.
When writing character descriptions, most writers focus on the most obvious things: hair and eye color, height, build, and clothing. While this sets the characters apart from each other, those traits can be cliché and forgettable. How many times have you read about a character with flaming red hair and emerald-green eyes? Or a man with a strong chin and bulging biceps. Been done so much it’s boring.
Using only adjectives (blond, blue, muscular, slim, etc.) to describe the characters’ physical appearance doesn’t leave a vivid or lasting impression on the reader. It’s also in danger of making the reader perceive the character as cardboard and flat—a puppet the author is just moving through the scene to get to the next plot point.
Use Unusual Details and Motions
One way to liven up a character description is to use fresh and unusual details that haven’t appeared in dozens of stories already, like:
Ian's two front teeth stuck out at a crooked angle, and he hid them behind closed-lipped smiles and protective fingers that often hovered over his mouth when he talked.
Bertram’s plump face resembled a biscuit—pale, round, and slightly greasy—and his hazel eyes were the color of weak tea.
Over-plucked brows perched high on her forehead, giving her a look of constant surprise.
Mildred wore her frown like armor, keeping people at bay, her green eyes slitted behind steel-rimmed glasses.
Here are examples of vivid and unusual physical descriptions from published authors.
Dennis Lehane, A Drink Before War
Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.
James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain
His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man chewing tobacco, and talcum powder.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.
Instead of having a character simply enter a room or sit down, you can give the character a special way to move that will make them seem more real and vivid to the reader, such as:
He trudged along the sidewalk, head down, shoes scuffing the concrete as if they weighed as much as anvils.
No matter where Sally went, she walked fast, looking neither left nor right, always giving the impression she had somewhere important to be.
The chubby woman bustled down the hallway, like a ship under full sail blown by a driving wind.
Here are examples of using motion to describe character by published authors.
Nora Roberts, Hot Rocks
A heroic belch of thunder followed the strange little man into the shop. He glanced around apologetically, as if the rude noise were his responsibility rather than nature’s, and fumbled a package under his arm so he could close a black-and-white-striped umbrella.
Both umbrella and man dripped, somewhat mournfully, onto the neat square of mat just inside the door… He stood where he was, as if not entirely sure of his welcome.
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere….He moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice—more like the hand of a dead than a living man.
Phillip Pullman, The Golden Compass
All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.
Until next time: Let the horror bleed onto the pages with every word!
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To my delight, some writers took the time to comment on my last newsletter: "Verbs Drive Your Story" Thank you!
Comments listed in the order they were received.
Danger Mouse writes: Good advice Laura, Action verbs will keep readers on the edge of their seat.
I’m glad you liked the newsletter, Vickie! Thanks for replying.
Vampyr14 writes: Great examples here. I especially like the last one....
I knew you’d catch on to the last one! I used my own advice to re-write that part of the ms.
9 years whew! writes: I fall into the moat! It is filled with plot eating "Was's" They tear the legs of action I'm trying to write and bother me as a reader. I read a self-pubbed book and the first page had a paragraph with the word WAS written five (5) times. I almost threw the book from the train. I did finish it but it was sad.
It’s kind of a shame that self-published authors don’t spend a bit more time learning craft before putting their books out in the world.
W.D.Wilcox © ¿ Φ writes: Verbs is a funny word. It sounds a little like gas. "Oh excuse me, I've got the verbs."
You crack me up!
Phoenix writes: Verbs are so important in all genres. I think we all need the reminder to really put them to work. Thanks!
I always need to be reminded of craft. Even if I know the technique, I sometimes forget to use it. Thanks for writing to the newsletter!
Patrece~ Starting anew. writes: This was an awesome newsletter! It showed very clear examples of how to re-write passive phrasing, and best of all, how to take that boring passive phrasing and make it amazing! Thank you!
You’re very welcome, Patrece! I’m so glad I helped. Receiving replies like this makes writing the newsletter worthwhile.
Taniuska writes: Fantastic post, especially with your examples. And you're so right... Action verbs are superheroes.
Thanks, Tania! I really appreciate hearing this from you—you’re the Queen of Action Verbs.
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