Character: Beyond Description

When you meet someone new, you take in that person as a whole. Maybe later on you’ll get to know this person’s quirks, habits and demeanor, but for now you rely mainly on sight and sound, and if smell’s involved, let’s hope it’s perfume. In fiction, however, a reader can get to know a character far more intimately in a much faster time period.
Writing Tip for Today: When any character steps on stage, it’s important for the reader to understand the qualities you as writer need that reader to get right away.

  • Sketch out quick. In a novel you must present the key personality traits as soon as possible. This goes far beyond a physical description. In fact your protagonist is looking out at the world and may never train the camera upon herself, so the reader may never get a physical description. Hint: The character’s main motivation for being in the story (EX: a character who believes in saving all animals) must be apparent from the first pages.
  • Skim the Details. When you see someone on the street, you take note of descriptors which stand out: a man walks with a limp, a woman’s perfume reeks, a child’s mouth is ringed by chocolate ice cream. If you go over every detail from head to toe, the story stalls.
  • Make it memorable. Remember how Donald Maass writes about larger-than-life characters? When you give your characters traits, be original. You certainly don’t want all your players to sound and act just like you do. When you show the reader a character, go off-road: try blending great qualities of honesty, loyalty and forgiveness with quirky traits such as change-jingling, wearing a hat backwards or other odd but endearing traits. It worked for Columbo, works for Dr. House and could work for your character too.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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