Close your eyes and think of your favorite fictional character. What comes to mind when you think of them? Typically it's not bullet list items like hair color, eye color, and height. It's things like their personality, their demeanor, the way they treat others and the like. Ever wonder why that is? It's all the result of masterful crafting on the part of the author.
If you've ever beta read a story for an author and been asked the question: "What does x character look like?"or "Describe character x", often the author is trying to ascertain what works and what doesn't. When writers focus on character description, they often do so misguidedly. They lose sight of what readers remember and get wrapped up in their "darlings". They are blinded by their love for their characters and forget what the reader needs to picture them.
The reality is that readers don't need paragraphs of physical description, and often resent authors who provide it. What they do need is a general suggestion that gifts them with the "feel" of the character so that their own imaginations can provide the rest.
While we hope that readers will love our characters as much as we do, we have to recognize that every reader will visualize them differently. Rather than try to control or direct our readers into seeing exactly what we intended, it's our job as authors to give them enough to work with without being too heavy-handed. Ultimately it doesn't matter if our readers know the exact hair color, eye color, or tiny freckle on our character's shoulder. What matters is that they get a sense for who our character is, what they are motivated by, and that they are either likeable or unlikable, and why.
How do we make characters who are vivid and memorable?
There are two parts to the character building process: a) character development and b) character description. Contrary to popular belief, they are not one-and-the-same and here's why.
Having trouble distinguishing the difference? That's okay. It can be hard to understand why you can't use every aspect of your character development when writing a character description. Here's an analogy to help you understand.
Think of an iceburg. You see a tiny amount of ice above the water, but know there's a lot more beneath the surface than what can be seen. It's the same principle for your characters. If you're writing a book, or series, you only want your reader to be introduced to the surface of the iceburg at the beginning. You want enough of your character to show to make a lasting impression, but the rest to be hidden until you decide to reveal it throughout the rest of the novel. Ice chunks (character details/backstory) emerge as the reader keeps reading. It's the reward for continuing your novel. By the end, your readers should have the complete picture of exactly who your character is and how they've been impacted by the events they faced during the story. To do this successfully, you have to know all about your characters, hence the need for character development. But it's only the details most relevant to the story that should be used. The rest is fodder for another time.
The 2-Step Character Method
There's an easy way to identify when your character description needs modifying and how to strengthen it. Here's our method below.
During editing, flag any characters in your story that you feel have weak introductions, too much character description, not enough depth, etc. Pick one character at a time so you don't get details confused. Highlight all the character information you use regarding them in your novel. This will show you the exact amount of characterization you've provided your readers and you'll automatically be able to tell if it's overkill, underwhelming, or just right.
Signs that it's overkill: You have paragraphs upon paragraphs of character information ranging from descriptive detail, to family history, to backstory, and beyond. Basically all of your character development has found it's way into your novel.
Signs that it's underwhelming: You have little to no information highlighted. You give only the vaguest reference to character development of any kind. Reading it together, you realize you've barely told the reader anything about your character.
Just right: You have a well-balanced amount of description and backstory in ratio to your other writing. It's peppered evenly throughout and doesn't detract from your overall story or break your pacing. It clearly supplements your overall plotline and is enough for characters to grasp who your character is as a person without revealing everything.
Now that you've analyzed how much you've shared, it's time to assess how you've shared it. This means looking at your individually highlighted sections and asking yourself if you've done the following:
Bullet point descriptions: The first red flag is if you read over your paragraphs and find bullet point descriptions. This means basic characteristics are listed like those you would find on a character interview sheet or a mugshot. Example: "She has blonde hair, is petite, and has a timid smile". This is weak prose and doesn't tell use anything memorable about your character. These are the kinds of details readers will forget as they continue reading.
Overly flowery descriptions: The second red flag is overly descriptive, flamboyant phrasing. Rather than making your characters memorable, you making your prose memorable and not in a flattering way readers appreciate. Example: "Her hair shimmered with threads of sunlit gold like strands of individual waves glimmering on the ocean. Each was silky to the touch and floated on the salty breeze as though they were sea foam. Her eyes shone with mirth and her laugh sounded like the peals of gulls as she turned her face skyward." While this is arguably better than the bullet point description, the section about the character's hair is too detailed. As readers we don't need to know about each individual strand of hair, nor do we care. After several similar descriptions, we're going to want to pull our own hair out in response.
The Craft of Character: How to create deep and engaging characters your audience will never forget
“The most complete and comprehensive guide to character I've ever read." Adam Croft
Character is at the heart of every story. We love stories because we fall in love with characters, we want to see what happens to them and we want to see them experience hope and despair. International Emmy nominated writer, Mark Boutros, offers a guide to creating characters who are engaging, emotionally driven and memorable.
Just Right: A character's description serves two purposes: 1) To give readers something to start their mental image with and 2) To provide a sense of what the character thinks about themselves/their general attitude and personality type. Example: "There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Right away C.S. Lewis tells us three vital pieces of information about his main character. The first being that he's a boy, second his name, and third that not only is this a wretched name but the quality of his personality is almost equally as awful. That's a lot of information packed into one sentence! Another way to give a lasting impression is to give a combination of physical traits mingled with mannerisms. Example: Every fiber of his being reverberated, as though he were a wind-up toy that would clamor this way and that if not held down by a steady hand. His light eyes jumped around the room and one couldn't tell if he was analyzing everything at once or romping through ideas too quickly, like sand pouring through a shifter in search of one large enough to stick.
Your characters are the catalysts of your story. They are the vessel through which both your plot and themes are channeled through. Without strong characterization and clear, impactful descriptions your readers are less likely to connect with your story, but also might miss out on what you intended to tell them. By using the 2 step character method, you can ensure that your characters have what it takes to captivate your readers and keep them engaged.
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