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.


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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).

Preventing Phantom Protagonist Syndrome

Have you ever had a really great idea for a story that somehow seemed to die a little more with each word you tried to write? Ever had a thrilling plot with no obvious holes in it that you just couldn’t seem to get off the ground? Perhaps, in addition to your thrilling and seamless plot, you also constructed a world so detailed, so complex and so marvellous that it would give Terry Pratchett and J.R.R Tolkien a run for their money; an antagonist whose diabolical scheme is sure to keep the reader on the edge of their seats; you’ve even managed to weave in a romantic subplot (which admittedly still seems a little half-baked, but it’s showing real potential)… and yet still, you just can’t seem to really ignite all that hard work into a half decent manuscript.

If any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance that your story is suffering from a chronic case of what I have dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome (PPS). PPS is a condition which occurs in stories where the protagonist (that is, the main character) has not fully developed into a believable person but is only ‘half there’. Other symptoms of PPS may include excessive backstory in your manuscript (especially in the opening pages) giving complex details of the social, economic and political situation for the last thousand years of your fiction world; numerous failed attempts to audition your protagonist; feelings of despair and frustration (in the author) and an overwhelming urge on the part of the author to delete the whole story and work on another project (knitting, or some other non-literary pursuit). Symptoms of PPS usually become apparent in the mid-late planning stage of development (although it has been documented at all stages, including several untreated cases in published works) and typically affects almost every other part of the story.

‘Is it serious!?’ I hear you cry.

Why, yes it is. Terminal, in fact. Remember, your protagonist is the driving force behind your story. Think about the busiest place you know; your office, your living room or your kid’s school playground. What do you think happens when there is nobody there?

That’s right. Nothing happens. The same is true in fiction. No protagonist, no story. Your story hangs on your protagonist’s every thought (because this affects what he does) and his every action (because this affects what actually happens), so the more he seems like a real person, the better.

‘How is PPS diagnosed?’

PPS, by its very definition, is caused by having a half finished (or even non-existent) protagonist. Therefore, it is the protagonist himself we must put to the test. Begin by consulting your protagonist’s character profile and ensure that it is complete. At the absolute bare minimum it should include:

  • The character’s full name (including aliases)
  • Age and D.O.B
  • Place of birth
  • Gender
  • Religion (be specific about this. Even atheists believe something to be true; for instance, they might believe religion is the scourge of humanity to be actively opposed or they might have a more ‘live and let live’ approach to religion, while still rejecting it for themselves. When answering the question of your character’s religious beliefs, be sure to know what he believes, rather than simply what he does not believe).
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality (if you can whittle this down to a particular town, street and house number, so much the better)
  • Physical description (including dress)
  • Family (spouse, children, siblings and parents at least)
  • Career (both their actual career and their dream career) and hobbies
  • A little back story on how he or she got to where they are now
  • A list of personality traits
  • A list of likes, dislikes, hopes and fears.

If any of these are missing or incomplete then your character is still a mere phantom, not a fully formed person. I’m very sorry, but it’s PPS.

If, however, you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the basics in place, then we need to perform a more invasive test on your protagonist. We need to get right inside his mind and find out what our protagonist’s motivation, goals, conflict and epiphany will be. These not only add substance to your protagonist, but they also form the backbone of your plot. Each of these four things follow on, one from the other: motivation influences goals, goals determine the conflict, which in turn determines what the outcome of your story will be and, consequently, what your protagonist will learn (the epiphany).

For instance, Johnny swears by his morning cup of coffee to get him through the day. He’s often late for work and his boss has told him if he is late one more time, he’ll get the sack. One morning, Johnny wakes up and – oh no! – his bus leaves in ten minutes! He quickly decides not to have the cup of coffee he swears by but jumps into the first set of clothes he can find and runs to the bus stop. He makes it to work just in time where he does such a good days work that he gets a promotion. And I did it all without a single drop of coffee, he reflects on his way home.

This story (simple though it is) works, because we have all four of the above elements feeding in to each other:

Motivation John wants to hold down his job
Goals To this end, he aims to drink a cup of coffee and get to work on time. He believes both are needed to satisfy his motives.
Conflict Time (an abstract sort of antagonist, if you like) has conspired to make him lose his job by forcing him to choose between his two goals.
Epiphany Having got to work on time, he realises he can live without coffee after all.

Johnny had two goals in this story: to have his morning cup of coffee and to get to work on time. His motivation, however, is to hold down his job and this determines his every action, including his decision to abandon one goal in favour of another. A common cause of PPS is giving your protagonist plenty of goals (i.e., get to the bus stop at all costs) but no motivation. Johnny would never have reacted in such haste if he wasn’t motivated to keep his job. He might not even have bothered about the coffee. He would have stayed in bed and learned nothing. How much more unlikely is it that your protagonist is going to try to assassinate Hitler or propose to his friend’s sister unless they are motivated? Johnny had goals because he was motivated. Conflict arose because the ‘antagonist’ (time, in this case) forced him to choose between his two goals. The choice he made, based on his motivation, determined the outcome of the story and, in the end, taught him a valuable lesson that made him a better person (but why not click here for the alternate ending?).

That, dear reader, is a character driven story and the most powerful vaccination I know against PPS.

The (Im)Perfect Protagonist

Since we talked about creating the perfect bad guy last week, I thought it seemed only meet that we should have a think about the character who (some might say) is the most important in any story: the protagonist.

Traditionally, the protagonist is the ‘hero’ and the ‘good guy’. Indiana Jones, Miss Marple, Romeo, Luke Skywalker, Sherlock Holmes, Matilda, Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Frodo Baggins, The Doctor and James Bond are just some examples of famous protagonists who defeat the bad guy, save the day, get the girl (or boy!) and generally overcome whatever obstacles the author feels like putting between them and their ultimate goal. Some stories, like A Song of Ice and Fire, follow the adventures of multiple protagonists at once. In many respects, this is slightly truer to life than the tradition of having only one protagonist, since there are no true protagonists in life (though we might all feel like we ourselves are the protagonist!) but it also makes for a far more complicated story. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something to bear in mind if you want to go down the route of interweaving the lives of multiple protagonists!

Whether you want to create one protagonist or one million, one of the first things you would be wise to do is to shelf any notions you might have about the protagonist being the ‘good guy’. Unless you’re writing a morality play, all of your characters ought to be a little bit flawed – including your hero. In fact, it’s all the more important that your protagonist is a little flawed (even in a morality play), because your reader absolutely must be able to sympathise with them so that they can come to care about what happens to them. For example, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress has a lot in common with a morality play in that it’s a highly allegorical work of religious fiction following the journey of a man called Christian making his way from the City of Destruction (this world) to Celestial City (heaven). One might expect the hero of such a work to be insufferably righteous but he is not. He is constantly waylaid, tricked and misled by various obstacles and antagonists such as the Slough of Despond, Mr Worldly Wiseman and the Giant of Despair who imprisons him in Doubting Castle. The reason Christian works as a character is because, despite his good intentions, he represents human frailty and fallibility. Bunyan’s intended audience can relate to this character. Therefore, they care about what happens to him because if he can achieve his goal despite his flaws, there is hope that the reader will also achieve their own goals in life. This goes for all stories, regardless of whether or not they have a religious or ethical moral like in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Like your antagonist, your protagonist needs a goal; something he is trying to achieve. There is no point in creating a protagonist the reader can relate to if that character doesn’t have some goal that both he and the reader badly want him to achieve.  More than any other character, the protagonist’s goal will be the beating heart of your story. If Frodo had just went out for wander instead of specifically trying to get to Mordor to destroy the ring, there would have been no story. Even silly stories, such as Mr Bean’s Holiday are absolutely defined by the protagonist’s single-minded and relentless urge to make it to the beach. Without a goal and a few obstacles which stand in between your protagonist and the goal, there is not much of a story, no matter how interesting and lifelike your protagonist is. If Sherlock Holmes had just pottered about using his gift to impress the other characters by telling them what they all had for their breakfast a week ago, he would not have become one of the most iconic characters in the history of mystery fiction. Sherlock Holmes needs a mystery to solve or the reader will lose interest in him (in fact, many of the Sherlock Holmes stories open with Holmes despairing of how boring his life becomes when he is between mysteries). Even if you take the interesting step of making your protagonist the bad guy (always good fun), he still needs a goal, though you might want to think twice before allowing him to fully achieve it. It’s probably better that he either dies in the attempt or else learns the error of his ways and repents, but that’s just my opinion.

Intricately tied into the protagonist’s goals are his obstacles. What’s stopping him achieving his goal? Perhaps another character in particular opposes his goals (that’s your antagonist, by the way) and is actively trying to hinder him. For example, in The Count of Monte Christo, the protagonist hopes to marry a particular woman and is opposed by a rival for her affections. This forms the basis for the whole plot. In Star Trek: Voyager, the protagonists are trying to make the impossibly long 70,000 light-year journey back to Earth. No one antagonist directly opposes this goal, but the sheer distance they have to travel makes it seem impossible for them to get home. Your protagonist’s obstacles might even take the form of internal conflicts, such as disease, self-doubt or cowardice. Indeed, you would be quite wise to include a few internal conflicts to give your protagonist a bit of believability. A protagonist who is brave, selfless, confident and strong can quickly become two-dimensional, no matter what his goals are and who opposes him.

I’ve got be honest, I find protagonists some of the most difficult characters to create. I also tend to find them less compelling than the antagonist in a lot of stories. Let’s be honest: Darth Vader is cooler than Luke Skywalker. There’s something really fun about booing and hissing at the bad guy, but no one wants him to win. It’s the protagonist we always hope and expect will win, because he or she is the one we have been following the most closely and have come to care about. Therefore, the perfect protagonist will be imperfect so we can relate to him, with good intentions that we hope he will eventually realise and a few demons to overcome. Who cares that Darth Vader is cooler than Luke Skywalker? We never truly relate to Vader or believe in his goals. We do relate to Skywalker and his goals in a way which means we will always be rooting for the good guy to win.