I have never loved a character quite as hard as I loved Lestat de Lioncourt when I was fourteen.
The Brat Prince had me swooning from the moment Louis began lamenting to his interviewer about just how very hard it is to be a vampire. Anne Rice created a world in her books that I could not get enough of, built with a cast of the most interesting characters imaginable. (Don’t argue with me, this is my blog, okay?) As a teenager, I read her books over and over just to spend time with them. This love of character is why I write today.
When I began to write Old Souls, I developed my characters first. I printed index cards outlining their physical characteristics and personality traits. And, these characters have become . . . disturbingly real to me.
Different writers handle their characters in different ways. Some writers, like Charlotte Bronte, hardly delve into the physical attributes of their characters at all, allowing readers the freedom to picture the cast in their own way. While I appreciate that style of writing, and loved Jane Eyre to the book’s very core, that’s just not my jam.
Now, while writing index cards outlining a character’s appearance and sorted quirks is one thing, weaving these qualities into a story is another beast altogether. Many new writers will stop the flow of their story completely to describe their players.
One of my favorite characters in Old Souls is named Iris. In my index cards, she’s a crazy looking older woman with bleached blonde hair and too much makeup. But that’s not how I describe her in the book. Here’s a snippet of the first chapter to show you what I mean:
The woman arguing with Marly sat at the bar, her back toward me. A tangle of bleached blonde hair extended past her hunched shoulders from her much darker roots. The smell of the cigarette smoke polluting her tattered clothing wafted through the air as I descended the steps to the main floor.
She spoke to Marly in a scattered slur. “I said I want a drink, you snappy little twit. I’m a paying customer, you know. Doesn’t that count for anything anymore?”
“And, I said I’m not serving you. It’s time for you to go.” Marly waved upward, directing the woman’s attention to me.
I placed my hand firmly on her thin shoulder. She looked up. She was older than I’d anticipated, closer to seventy than fifty if one was to believe the lines running rampant on her face. A thick layer of mascara coated her eyelashes, her cheeks heavily caked with makeup. As she stood, I realized the woman was only a few inches shorter than me.
Her eyes widened–so lightly blue her irises were almost clear–and then narrowed as she considered me.
I hooked my arm around the woman’s back, trying to usher her from the pub. “Marly’s right. It’s time for you to go.”
The woman stayed her ground, seeming suddenly, strangely sober. She laid her hand on my chest.
I looked at Marly, wondering if she’d told the woman my name. The blonde bartender stepped back with her hands raised, seemingly absolving herself from the situation. I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought that because I was schizophrenic, I knew everyone else who seemed a little crazy too.
“Do we know each other?” I asked the woman, for Marly‘s benefit.
“It is you.” A smudged, red-lipped smile spread across the older woman’s face.
I examined her again, noting her bronze, wrinkled skin and filthy clothing. In truth, there was something familiar about the woman‘s face, though I couldn‘t place it. Maybe I knew her after all.
“The Mother is looking for you, Lucien. Even after all these years. She’ll be sorry when she sees you like this, though.” Reaching out to poke the excess weight of my stomach with a twisted, arthritic finger, the woman grinned mischievously. “My, haven’t you gotten fat?”
Now, I could have stopped the story completely to tell the reader: she had dark roots and long blonde hair and a hunched back. Her fingers were twisted and arthritic. She smelled like cigarettes, wore too much makeup, and spoke like she was drunk. Her clothes were wrinkled and her skin was bronze.
But, I know which way I like better. The key is to keep your descriptions in motion. Words like ‘had’ and ‘was’ ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Action is. If your character has brown hair, point that out to your readers by having that brown hair wave in the breeze, or fall over their face while they laugh.
Don’t tell me she had twisted arthritic fingers. Have her jab my stomach with her twisted, arthritic fingers. Don’t tell me her eyes were so lightly blue they were almost clear, have her look at me with eyes so lightly blue they were almost clear.
Good! But, this is a skill that will take some time to develop. If, like me, you’ve decided to teach yourself to write by diving into the novel writing world, you will find that by the time you’re ready to attack that second draft these descriptions will come relatively easy in comparison to when you began. Building your cast of likeable/detestable characters is one of the most important aspects of writing a great book. Spend time getting to know them, getting to love them, and your readers will love them too.
This is one of my favorite descriptions from Interview with the Vampire:
“It was as if when I looked into his eyes I was standing alone on the edge of the world…on a windswept ocean beach. There was nothing but the soft roar of the waves.”
Can you think of a better way to say ‘he had blue eyes?’ How do you keep your descriptions in motion?