Building Character

I have never loved a character quite as hard as I loved Lestat de Lioncourt when I was fourteen.

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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.

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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.

nzhyeOne 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.

“Lucien?”

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.

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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?

 

4 thoughts on “Building Character

  1. I tend to not describe my characters, not so the reader can imagine them as the reader wants, as some have suggested I do, and complimented me for doing. I’m lazy. And sometimes I just forget.

    Allow me to explain.

    When I meet somebody in person for the first time, my brain does a lot of processing. How tall you are, your hair color, your smile, maybe your perfume, and even the clothes you’re wearing are going to tell me about your economic status, as will your demeanor and vocabulary. How I’ll remember you for next time, your engagement with me, attitude toward me, etc., if you react like I’m a stalker, all that goes through my head and is filed away.

    That’s a lot of information – and probably boring to read.

    With characters, especially important ones, I drop it in here and there, in bits and pieces if I do it at all. With bit players, I tend to give a very brief- VERY brief – general description.

    My MC in Poggobonsi, written in 1st person, is taller than me, but not a lot. Other characters (usually women) have to look up at him, so he is perceived as tall. Other characters swoon at his good looks, so he is perceived as very handsome.

    He’s more Jude Law, one reader noted, than Ben Stiller. Okay; but I don’t think I described him much at all. I let readers come to know he is good looking but I don’t think I ever described his hair color or eye color, only that he works out by running. The doctor during a physical enjoys looking at his butt (she’s a bit nutty, that doctor, and very unprofessional).

    Here’s the thing – if I have a character going on and on about how great Mike’s butt is, but I don’t actually describe it, YOU THE READER get to decide what his butt looks like. It’s ideal to you, not round or bubble-butt or whatever I think you’d like. I could guess wrong. You won’t.

    However, contrast that with the beautiful Julietta, the young lady in the story that Mike falls for. I spend a WHOLE CHAPTER describing her. Now, that’s folded in with Mike trying to check her out without being noticed, and a lot of other things are happening, but that’s the whole point of the chapter, and we go into very specific details about Julietta. Her eye color, the shape of her nose, her nice clothes, her hair, buttons – all gone into detail, but in an interesting way. The scene has decent tension, even. It’s a good scene.

    Why do that with her and not him?

    Becaue it shows how much he was taken with her, and his emotional turmoil over seing such a beautifl woman, and if he notices her that much, WE notice her that much.

    Because Mike is attactive to you, but Jullietta is attractive to Mike.

    And – pay attention, this is tricky – if WE like Mike, and Mike likes Julietta, WE like Julietta. See how that works? Now, she can’t be a raging shrew, and she’s not, but everybody ends up liking her because Mike does, and we got to know him and like him first. Cool, huh?

    Kinda like Lucien and Iris, above. If we are sympathetic to Lucien, his attitude toward Iris will probably become ours, not matter how physically ugly she’s portrayed. That’s powerful.

    Character descriptions are additional colors and details we paint or don’t paint onto the canvasses of our stories. You get to decide how you want them. Just be aware, there’s a lot of power in the reader’s imagination, and sometimes we want to use that; other times we want to take control and force that description onto the reader, but ALWAYS we want to be entertaining.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Those are great points. And, you’ve probably just explained why I felt so drawn to the characters in Interview with the Vampire. The narrator, Louis de Pointe du Lac, loved the characters in the story, (even though he also hated them) and that love became the way that I loved them.

    Having read a big chunk of Poggibonsi, I can say firsthand that your characterization technique is really powerful. I feel just as drawn to Julietta as I imagine that Mike does . . . even though she’s exactly the kind of woman I’d probably hate in the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Character Descriptions | Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

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