Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

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, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Figuring Out Foil Characters

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.
robin
No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what kicks your side.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

A Few Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Star Trek Beyond is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m a Trekkie, so naturally I’ve already been to see the latest offering of the franchise, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung: Star Trek Beyond. I’ll resist the urge to pull up the writers for the various inconsistencies there were with the original Star Trek universe (suffice it to say, there were some and we’re all very cross about it but let’s be honest, there’s always something isn’t there?) and, as ever, I’ll leave any analyses of the cinematics to those better qualified than I to make any kind of judgement about them (although I will quickly say that Chris Pine is doing a much better Kirk impression these days than he used to). What I want to talk about today is the story-writing in this specific film.

So, first things first: did I like Star Trek Beyond?

It was alright. It was better than Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance, but it wasn’t a patch on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or even Star Trek Into Darkness. If visually spectacular space battles and non-stop action, excitement and danger are your thing then you will probably enjoy it. When boiled down to its basic elements, the plot was a little bit unremarkable: an angry alien (who is actually a human! Dun-dun-duun!) wants to unleash an extra-deadly bio-weapon into the ventilation system of the new Federation starbase Yorktown, which is home to thousands of innocent civilians from different Federation worlds (which is not entirely dissimilar to the plot of Nemesis, where an angry Reman  — who is actually a human clone! Dun-dun-duun! — wants to unleash an extra-deadly form of radiation into Earth’s atmosphere, but I’ll not say anything more about that).

In and of itself, there’s really nothing wrong with that kind of plot if it’s executed well. My main problem with Beyond was the pacing of the plot. It was fast and exciting almost from the outset, but as any good writer will tell you, speed and excitement cannot make a good story alone. Slower scenes, rich in dialogue and other details are important to allow for a build-up in suspense and to keep the audience abreast of what is actually going on. In particular, these slow scenes are essential for adding substance and meaning to a story. I felt like Star Trek Beyond was all action and excitement for the first two thirds of the film and then crammed most of the major plot developments into the final scenes, where it is suddenly revealed that Krall is actually a human who got stranded on that alien planet before the Federation was founded and kept himself alive using alien technology to sap something from the native beings on that planet and now he’s out for revenge – and it’s a real shame, because I think this film definitely did have something to say which was in keeping with the original spirit of Star Trek. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear over the noise of all the explosions, phaser fire and motorbikes.

I think what would have really improved this film would have been more slow scenes featuring Krall himself to give the audience some inkling into what was driving him. After Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, poor Krall had a lot to live up to as a bad guy. He needed to be complicated and I think he had that potential, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was such that he came across as very two dimensional indeed. Perhaps if he had a right-hand man whom he could dialogue with (similar to the way scenes between Shinzon and his Viceroy in Nemesis foreshadowed the revelations which were still to come), it might have made the revelation of his human origins and his desire to avenge himself on the Federation seem a little less random and there would have also been an opportunity for some of his more complex thoughts and feelings to surface.

Speaking of under-cooked characterisation, there is also a subplot concerning Kirk and Spock’s friendship with each other and their respective futures in Starfleet, which is sadly lost amid all the excitement of the main plot. Having said that, I was very pleased to see that the relationship between Spock and Bones was allowed a little bit more room to develop in this film than it did in the previous two. Anyone who has ever watched the original Star Trek series featuring the late Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley in the aforementioned roles will tell you that their on-screen rivalry was the best in Star Trek history and it is good to see these two characters having time alone together to interact once again (although I did think that their dialogues with each other could have benefited from a few more scathing insults and sharp-witted jibes; it turned into a bit of a ‘bromance’ here and there, which isn’t really the kind of relationship you would expect from Spock and Bones).

All in all… it’s not a bad film. It’s not even a terrible Star Trek film, although it’s certainly not the best one I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, go and see it with some popcorn and a large drink in a paper cup and enjoy it for the entertaining escapism that it is.

The Perfect Antagonist

For me, the antagonist – what we might loosely call ‘the bad guy’ – can make or break an otherwise good story. He is the living and breathing incarnation of the obstacle your protagonist (or ‘hero’, if you insist) needs to overcome. It’s also a good opportunity for the author to create a character who ticks differently from any of the ‘good guys’ and (depending on your genre) you can really let your imagination run wild when it comes to his physical attributes.

Of course, a good author (or even philosopher) will tell you that the good guy doesn’t necessarily wear shining white armour and the bad guy doesn’t necessarily have a swishing black cape… but these conventions do exist for a reason. Just try and imagine what Star Wars would have looked like if Darth Vader had been the hero and Luke Skywalker had been the villain. Picture the scene in your minds eye, if you can: Darth Vader, hanging over a sheer drop and Luke Skywalker standing over him triumphantly:

Skywalker: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Vader: *heavy breathing* He told me enough; he told me you killed him.
Skywalker: No. I am your father.
Vader: No! No! *heavy breathing* It’s not true! That’s impossible!
Skywalker: Search your feelings! You know it to be true!
Vader: Noooo, noooo! *hyperventilating*

See? Ridiculous.

On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean your antagonist should be swishing around in a black cape. What you want is something distinctive that makes your antagonist really stand out. I don’t mean to keep rabbiting on about Star Wars, but before I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I had a gnawing anxiety that no matter how cool the bad guy was, he would never live up to Darth Vader. When I finally saw it, what I got was an antagonist (Kylo Ren) who wore a cape and a mask similar to Darth Vader’s and who used the dark side of the Force like Darth Vader but apart from that, he spent most of the film throwing hissy fits because he wasn’t nearly as good at being bad as Darth Vader was. He wasn’t cool; he was pathetic. One can’t help but wonder if the writer of this film created Kylo Ren as an expression of his own frustrations at the impossible task he had of creating a villain worthy of Darth Vader. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Force Awakens, but I think Kylo Ren would have lived up to Darth Vader far better if he had simply not been anything like him.

The most tragic thing about it all is that most of Kylo Ren’s problems were simply cosmetic. Darth Vader was a Jedi who was seduced by the dark side, but Kylo Ren is introduced to us as an antagonist who is drawn to the ‘light’ side. That sounds like the makings of a bad guy who really does stand out from Darth Vader and the Sith. It was little things like the black cape, the shiny mask and the red lightsaber (okay, it was a funky shape, big woop) that made him look like a Darth Vader wannabe. The fact that he really did wish he was Darth Vader didn’t help matters. Personally, I think he would have been a much more compelling antagonist if he had been wearing a bit more colour, no cape, no shiny mask and (dare I say it?) no lightsaber – and definitely no scenes where he is compared to Darth Vader.

Moving on from Star Wars and the outward appearance of the antagonist, another important thing all bad guys must have is a motive for their actions. If you read my Valentines Day’s post about creating a love interest, you may recall how much I underlined the importance of your love interest being a character in their own right, with their own egos, agendas, desires, fears and motives. They are not just there to swoon after the hero. In the same way, your antagonist must be a person in his or her own right. They must have their own beliefs, their own hopes, their own ambitions and their own reason to get up in the morning apart from simply annoying the protagonist. The only real difference with an antagonist is that you might feel a little bit safer in exploring darker motives for doing things, but even then, watch out! Don’t turn them into the sort of bad guy who cackles about how magnificently devious they are and don’t make them bad just for the sake of being bad. Even if they’re mad in some way, there must be something which motivates them; a fear, a desire or a goal of some kind. In the 1993 film, Falling Down, Michael Douglas played a character who had a mental breakdown while stuck in traffic on his way to his daughter’s birthday party at the home of his ex-wife. There’s no denying that his character has flipped. He spends most of the film smashing up various people and places but behind it all, he still has a goal (‘I’m going home!’) and a motive behind his violent outbursts (frustration at the problems, flaws and injustices of every day life). Thus he remains a character in his own right; his existence is not defined by the hero or anyone else.

Your antagonist can be motivated by almost anything. They can be power hungry, racist, misogynistic, greedy, paranoid, psychotic or (better still!) they can even be driven by seemingly noble motives. In the Star Trek franchise, for example, the Maquis are depicted as a group of terrorists but they are motivated by a desire to drive out what they see as alien invaders from certain human colonies. Indeed, even the ‘good guys’ in Star Trek often appear to sympathise with the Maquis’ cause – but ultimately, they oppose them. Having an antagonist who has good intentions can often make for a much more compelling character and it adds substance to your plot. Whatever their motives and however you decide to dress them up, the two most important things you can do with your antagonist is make them unique and make sure they are a fully fledged character in their own right. Give them all the shades of grey that we find in every character and try to avoid clichés. Having said that, I don’t care how cool your bad guy is and I don’t care how much I sympathise with his feelings or his motives…

The bad guy should never, ever, ever win.