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.

Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

I’ve been reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories. It’s not really my intention to review it here today (not least of all because I haven’t read it all yet), but I will say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of his writing. It doesn’t read like an actor trying to make a few extra quid by writing a book. It reads like something written by a professional author who knows a thing or two about writing quality stories. In short, I’m enjoying it. But something else about it surprised me: the language. There’s a lot of profanity in there and for some reason, I expected Tom Hanks’ work to be a little bit more family friendly. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just because I’m hearing it in Woody the Cowboy’s voice.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the use of profanity in fiction. We authors walk a fine line between realism and rudeness, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Where do you draw the line?

Well… it depends.

The first and most obvious thing is to consider your audience and what they expect from your story. Certain audiences tend to go for certain genres, and as such, the level of profanity in your work will often be largely dependent on your genre. If you have a real aversion to using any profanity whatsoever in your writing, the simplest way around this is to stick to those genres which tend to have less profanity in them. Alternatively, you can always sit down and watch the soaps for inspiration. Really, I’m serious. Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation Street are simply chock full of characters having heated arguments about adultery, betrayal, crime and all sorts of other grim subjects without a single f-bomb being dropped.

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Image source: http://gph.is/1c3k48L

However, let’s assume you are willing to use some profanity in your story. There might be lots of reasons why you use bad language in your story. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock makes frequent (mis)use of mild profanity in a vain attempt to fit in with 20th century human society. Here it serves a very simple function: comedy relief (even though The Voyage Home is pretty light-hearted anyway). It also works, because it’s done in a fairly subtle way. Bad language is also often used to add a sense of anger or urgency to a character’s dialogue. It is, therefore, an undeniably useful tool for some authors.

A word of warning, however: profanity has the power to augment your story or to utterly ruin it, perhaps more than any other technique you might use. A measure of bad language may or may not be appropriate if you’re writing for adults, but bad language is not the defining characteristic of a good adult story. It is simply a tool that you may decide to use or not use as you see fit. Overusing it, as with any other literary technique, can destroy your story. The fact is, profanity loses its power very quickly. The more often bad language is used, the more desensitised the reader becomes to it. What began as a striking technique with which to shock or amuse the audience quickly becomes nothing more than a few pointless extra words which ruin the flow of the narrative.

‘But in real life, some people do swear ten times in a single sentence!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can I make my dialogue realistic if I water it down?’

It can be tempting to think this. On the surface it seems perfectly rational. However, any seasoned author knows that dialogue in fiction is actually very different from the way real people talk from day to day. Dialogue flows. Dialogue makes sense. Dialogue is to-the-point. Even when sub-text is used, what is said remains clear and advances the story in a very definite direction. For this reason, profanity may sometimes be necessary but it should be carefully measured, lest it lost its power.

In real life, people talk rubbish. They say things they don’t mean. They’ll change the subject. They’ll utterly misunderstand the subject and, you know, they’ll like… how can I put it? They’ll, I don’t know, they’ll– respond in inappropriate ways. You know, like, you’ll say something and they’ll say something back and it’s obvious they’ve not understood you because what they’ve said back doesn’t make any sense. Like that time I was talking to Sandra about fly fishing and she… [insert long winded, irrelevant anecdote here]. They’ll misuse pacific words, mishandle slang and make such a mess of their utterances that it frankly beggars belief that humans are able to communicate verbally at all.

In the same way a real person might swear twenty times per sentence, but if you want to fictionalise that person, you’ll probably want to tone down his language lest it ruin the flow of your narrative.

One last thing to bear in mind: You’re never going to please everyone. What matters, therefore, is you, your story and your intended audience (not necessarily in that order). Ask yourself, why am I using profanity here? Is it really necessary to make my story work? Am I comfortable using it? Will it produce the correct response in my intended audience (forget your ‘unintended’ audience; you can’t possibly please everyone), or will it bore/offend them? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate. Personally, I find less is usually more when it comes to profanity, but maybe that’s just me.


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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.