A Protagonist’s Anatomy #4: Surface Details

Well it’s the fourth and final instalment in this little series entitled A Protagonist’s Anatomy. Over the last three weeks we’ve looked at endowing your characters with motives and goals, backstory and character traits to create that ‘believable person’ that you’ve always dreamed of writing about. Now there’s just one final detail: the surface details.

This is all the stuff you were probably tempted to write at the beginning but were wise not to. But don’t let the word ‘surface’ fool you. This isn’t unimportant stuff (in fact, it’s all potentially crucial stuff). It’s absolutely vital if you want to give your protagonist that perfect finish. It’s just not the beating heart of your character. Therefore, there is one key buzzword I want you to remember as we consider these things: relevancy.

I’ve separated these surface details into two broad categories: basic demographics and physical description. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Basic Demographics

You’ll want to have a page of demographics tucked away somewhere in every character profile you write. I tend to have it right on the front page though it details only the most basic information about your character. I find a simple list is the best approach to this, e.g.:

First name: John
Last name: Smith
Middle names: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Bob
Age: 42
Sex: Male
etc., etc.,

There is almost no limit to the kind of stuff you can include in this section. I’ve seen some authors detail everything from the character’s favourite brand of biscuit right through to the names of all the character’s aunties, uncles, cousins and dogs.

Personally, however, I think there is something to be said for setting sensible limits. By all means, be detailed. You’re making a person. This should be a reasonably long document and there are certainly some basic details which you will certainly have to include such as the character’s name, age, nationality, etc. But do try to restrict yourself to details those details which are vaguely relevant to your story. If your protagonist’s childhood goldfish is never mentioned in the story, nor does it ever enter into the thinking of your protagonist then what is the point of naming it here?

Physical Appearance

Ah yes, the ever contentious physical description. Some authors love them, some authors deny their existence altogether. There’s really two things to consider here: how your character looks in your mind and if/how you describe their appearance.

First, it’s a good idea to have a fair idea in your own mind what your character looks like. I find it helps me to visualise what I’m writing if I feel like the characters have vivid, recognisable faces that I am familiar with. I wouldn’t waste a lot of time on this, however. I usually either base it on someone I know personally or else I find a picture of someone I don’t know on a free picture site like Pixabay and attach it to my character profile just for my own sake (I wouldn’t ever publish this of course!). I might write out a character description for my own use if I have the image clear in my head already but I don’t waste a lot of time on this.

The real question is whether or not you should include a character description in your actual manuscript and if so, how?

I return to our buzzword for the day: relevancy. Believe it or not, lengthy physical descriptions are a big boring boring-ball with boring sprinkles. They drag the pace of your narrative down to crawl and the audience is frankly not likely to remember most of it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have physical descriptions, but it does mean keep it relevant. Focus on those aspects which tell us something about the character’s backstory (e.g., Harry Potter’s scar) or their personality, e,g.:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

John Steinbeck, description of Lennie in Of Mice and Men

This description works perfectly because it focuses so little on the tedious details of eye and hair colour but instead emphasises aspects of Lennie which are crucial to the overall plot: specifically that he is physically big and strong and that he is somewhat mentally vacant, moved by the world around him by doing little to influence it himself.

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Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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