Writing Advice #27: Building Character(s)

Sometimes people ask about creating and describing characters. Since characters are one of the essential building blocks of fiction, I figured I’d take a couple of blog entries to talk about this.

First of all, there is, of course, a distinction between character BUILDING and DESCRIPTION, although the two can be closely aligned, believe it or not. (There are ways to use character description to build the character.) Character building, of course, is how we “assemble” a character, how we decide who this person is, what his or her loves and hates are, how he or she reacts to various situations.

Character description is just the physical appearance of your character, which can be important, but isn’t as in-depth.

I’ll talk a little bit about both, tackling description first.

For the physical description, nothing is worse in this world than reading a book and turning a page, only to find THIS waiting for you…

Alicia looked at herself in the mirror. She had green eyes and long blonde hair. She loved the little tilt of her nose and her arched eyebrows. Cute earrings dangled from her earlobes, which were attached, not separated…

You get the point. It could go on FOREVER. (One benefit to this: How often do you ever know if a character has attached or separated earlobes, hm? Think about it.)

There are a few different approaches to physical character description, and which one you use depends on the story you’re telling and how you’re telling it. If you’re telling your story in first person, for example, it can be weird to have the character suddenly stop the action in order to do a personal body inventory…unless it makes SENSE for that to happen. Like, if your book is about a guy who’s in love with a girl who ignores him, it might make sense for him to look in the mirror at some point and notice all of his flaws and moan about them.

All it took was one look in the mirror to confirm all my fears. Of COURSE Alicia would never even look at me twice. I had acne like a smallpox victim and my nose was so crooked it was practically hinged. Ugh. I couldn’t stand looking at myself.

Not only have you given us a quick, thumbnail sketch of your character’s appearance there, but you’ve also tied it into his mental and emotional state AND the overriding theme of the story. Not bad, eh?

But if your story is a third-person action thriller about a retired Marine, that makes a hell of a lot LESS sense, doesn’t it? In that case, you’re more likely to crank out something like…

The door hissed open and Major Jack Carleton stepped into the room. He was built like an old-time floor safe — squat, thick, strong. His bald head gleamed in the half-light and his lip curled into an amused smirk.

Again, we’ve given you a quick sketch of the character’s physical traits, and at the same time told you something of his personality.

One thing you should notice here is that there’s rarely a need to go into extreme detail about a character’s physical appearance, unless that is crucial to the story. In romances and erotica and some flavors of chick-lit, physical appearances are ENORMOUSLY important and you’ll need to go into a lot of detail. But FOR THE MOST PART, your job as writer is to pinpoint specific and evocative details that will spark your readers’ imaginations and allow them to draw the character in their own minds.

Best example of this that most people know of is Harry Potter. Think about it: Other than the glasses and the scar and the fact that he’s a kid, what else do you need? Those three elements give you everything you need to conjure an image of Harry in your mind. Rowling didn’t need to describe Daniel Radcliffe or Mary GrandPre’s cover art. She just gives you some details and lets YOUR brain do the rest of the work. So think about the things that make your character come alive in YOUR mind — is it his crooked nose? Her dimples? His cleft chin? Her way of standing like she’s a super-model?

Whatever it is, lock onto it and drive it home to the reader in simple, direct, evocative language. The reader’s noggin’ll do the rest of the work for you.

Of course, you can always just NOT describe your character. That can work sometimes, though it’s usually best when you’re in first person. In Fanboy, the only description we get of Fanboy is when he thinks of himself as ugly. Later, Dina and Kyra both tell him he’s NOT ugly, but that’s all we ever get. Now, we DO get descriptions of both Kyra and Dina, but that’s because Fanboy is obsessed with them, so that fits into his character’s personality.

Similarly, in Boy Toy, Josh describes Rachel, Michelle, and Eve, but only gives token descriptions of his parents…and never ONCE describes Zik, his best friend! What does that say about him as a character? (And all we EVER get for Josh in the way of physical description is that he’s tall and good-looking. Pretty generic!)

So, you have a bunch of different ways to go, but my point is this: Usually, less is more. Find resonant details and are memorable, use them, and then move on.

You may have noticed something — the descriptions of the characters (or lack thereof) can sometimes tell us something about the characters themselves, something integral and internal as opposed to mere external description. Pretty cool, huh? Next week we’ll get into the REAL character building. See you then!

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