In your school days, you sat in class and listened to the teacher talk about Napoleon. It was a fabulous story. Too bad you wanted to be on Facebook instead. Why was Facebook more interesting than Napoleon? You knew far more about the people, and you cared about them. You were invested in their lives. Napoleon was this dead guy that you felt zilch for.
Too many authors write about dead “characters”. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to discuss four main things that are needed to help keep a story interesting, by developing characters that are real for your readers. I want to suggest that characters are capable of sinking a book or making it. Your book will be read with delight or disgust depending on how good your characters are.
So here’s tip number one for this week:
“Mary wore her hair in a bun and dressed in the school uniform.”
Fabulous. But you know what? All I can see is a bun and uniform. I don’t see anyone wearing either of them.
Blind people will tell you it’s awful to be blind. We shouldn’t ever expect our readers to go through the same experience. A physical description should occur almost at the moment of the character’s introduction, to avoid this experience on the reader’s part. It should be just enough to sketch the character. An artist can construct a face with only a few lines. They don’t draw full nostrils or a complete nose, but they effectively hint at what we cannot see. Authors should be the same.
The most important part of the description is the face. It’s the area people communicate with. Eyes are important, and so are facial expressions. Hair color and length help the reader picture the frame around the face. You don’t need to describe every freckle. Just enough to fill the part of the reader’s vision that is normally engaged when interacting with people. Clothes are secondary, but can tell a lot about the person.
Along with description, we’ve got to have some details about body language. It’s confusing for the reader when appearance is only described once at the beginning of a three hundred page book. Choose your moments carefully, but remind them who they’re talking to. A name is bewildering. A picture isn’t.
“Mary spoke in a low voice, her pointy head bowed and her skinny fingers fidgeting with her skirt.”
Doing this will force you to remember who you’re writing about. It will make your writing more compelling, because the character is driving it – not you. You’ll start to think about how they will manifest themselves in particular situations.
And that’s plot.
And that’s how a character’s physical description can change your whole book.