23 July 2010

Give Your Characters a Makeover

Sometimes short stories are just fine with little or no descriptions of the characters involved. With novels, you pretty much have to include them, at least for important characters. With either form, a poor character description is the sign of a beginning author. I can't tell you how many stories I've read where the author chose to describe only the hair color, eye color, and clothing of a character in a laundry list sort of way. I admit it is not easy to do well-written character descriptions, but one way to make them better is to elaborate on details using your POV character's thoughts.

Here's an example. The following sounds like a laundry list description that might appear in your first draft--not very exciting:

Dale Hunter wore slacks and a blazer. She was thin and attractive, with wide-set eyes and full, pink lips.

Okay. Pretty bare bones and not too original. But hey, it's your first draft. You got it down on paper. Here's the second draft:

Dale Hunter was dressed in good slacks, a button down shirt, and a blue blazer. She was an athletic, strong looking-woman. Although she was not thin, she was toned. Her face was attractive, with wide-set eyes, and her skin was the color of peach flesh. She wore small gold earrings and only a little makeup. Her lips were full and pink.

Some pretty good details in there, but still a little dry. You don't learn anything about the POV character who is describing Dale Hunter. Here's the real version, from Stephen White's Harm's Way (note he even sneaks in a setting detail):

Dale Hunter was dressed in good slacks that flattered her long legs, a button down guy-type shirt that I would never call a blouse, and a blue blazer with those brass buttons that make it seem all nautical, as though the next thing she was going to do was hop a plane to Martha's Vineyard and spend the weekend with Walter Cronkite on his yacht. She was an athletic, strong looking-woman. Her shoulders and upper legs filled the fabric of her clothing. Although she was not thin, she was toned. I guessed she was a swimmer.

Her face was attractive, with wide-set eyes. In my book, cops should be weathered, but Dale Hunter's skin was the color of peach flesh, and despite Colorado's desert dryness, her complexion was rich and moist. She wore small gold earrings and only a little makeup--maybe a touch of blush and eyeliner. The dominant feature on her face was her lips. They were full and pink, and I couldn't be sure if I detected gloss on them or not.

Much better, huh? Notice that, in all of the above we DON'T get her hair and eye color. Still, you have a good feel for what the character looks like, and perhaps even what she will act like.

Read through your latest story and find your character descriptions. Try removing eye and hair color. Put in something that does double duty describing both the described character and the POV character. It is bound to catch the editor's eye (or at least prevent him from rolling his "deep blue" eyes.)


lesleylsmith said...

Some really good points, Editor Dave. Dave is very good with his character descriptions so listen to him, Authors!

Monica said...

I like your post from your heart, very interesting and Informative
Monica Sharma

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Alice V said...

I like this. Very nice how you took it from basic and elaborated it several times over until it was this great-flowing beautiful tapestry of description.

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