Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Distinctive Characters

Portrateines Walliser Bauern 1910 I’m writing this Tuesday morning at the coffeehouse. There’s a lady sitting at the table in front of me who keeps looking at me and smiling like she knows me.

I hope she doesn’t know me because I definitely don’t know her.

She’s blonde. She has her hair back in a ponytail and a Nike baseball cap on top of that. She’s medium build. She has a nice jogging suit and expensive running shoes on.

She looks like about twenty-five other suburban mommies I know. I’m sure I’ve got to look to her like a million other moms she knows…so maybe she doesn’t know me and she just thinks she does.

This is a danger when creating characters, too. Sometimes characters can run together a little bit.

What I don’t usually include:

There are only so many different hair colors. Well, unless you dye your hair….that really opens up the color spectrum. So when describing a character, I might not mention the hair unless they’re losing it or have their roots showing or have something else noteworthy about it. Because, as a reader? I’m just not going to remember later who the blondes, brunettes, or redheads in a book are.

Describing height is also something I don’t spend a lot of time on unless the character is unusually tall or short. It just sounds sorta police line-uppy to me.

I’m also not crazy about paragraphs that are intended to paint a descriptive picture of a character. It just pulls me right out of a book—I feel like I’m seeing the puppet’s strings.

What I do usually include:

I like a couple of interesting details about a character. I don’t need a total rundown on their appearance, but little bits are great—I loved that Harry Potter’s glasses were taped together and that he had a lightening bolt scar. Unusual physical characteristics help tell characters apart.

Learning about characters’ personalities through their actions is fun. Are they calm and collected during emergencies? Do they party too much at parties? Do they keep the secrets our protagonist tells them? Do they over-tip or under-tip a waitress? Are they sloppy in appearance or in their housekeeping? Some characters are reticent and fearful during the mystery. Others are always happily in the middle of the action.

Mannerisms and dialogue are helpful in establishing character identities. Each expresses their own attitudes, insecurities, or confidence when they speak. Sometimes characters can even casually talk to other characters and drop clues as to appearance. “I wish I could eat a plate of onion rings and not gain a pound, Lou.”

As a reader, if I read one character’s perceptions of another character, it does help me remember the character. It’s almost like that character is gossiping to me. Myrtle wished Erma would just back UP. This close-talking was fine and dandy unless you had halitosis. Which Erma definitely suffered from.

The woman here at the coffeehouse is packing her things up and leaving. Maybe she wasn’t sure she knew me either. Good thing neither of us are characters in a book.