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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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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:

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.