Effective character descriptions do more than provide a visual image of a character’s appearance. They can also take the reader into the mind of the person they have just met, provide the first hint of their destiny, or perhaps a dark shadow of their past.
In other words, describing characters is one of those essential elements of story-telling that you can spend a lifetime practicing and perfecting. And, like many other tools of the writing craft, what may seem at first blush to be a rote step in fact has many variations. That’s a good thing, not only to avoid repetition, but also because some alternatives help create a different atmosphere, or lend themselves to introducing a character in a different way, or can bring a smile to the reader along the way.
If you’ve spent a lifetime reading but not studying creative writing (which describes me), learning about writing techniques is a fascinating exercise in witnessing the scales fall from your eyes. After all, if you’ve been reading good books all your life, then you’ve also been absorbing all of the different ways in which great writers introduce you to their creations. But you may, like me, have been enjoying an author’s versatility without consciously studying exactly how they are going about it.
I’ve therefore lately been reading a steady stream of books on writing and editing. One I’ve just purchased is called Word Painting, by Rebecca McClanahan, and what introduced me to her was an excerpt from this book reproduced at the (regrettably pop-up ad and Flash infested) Writers Digest site called 11 Secrets of Writing Effective Character Description.
What you’ll find in her piece is a very fruitfully expanded concept of what character descriptions can be all about. There’s not much point in my summarizing here what you can read there, but here’s an example of one of her 11 techniques to catch your interest:
7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.
In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.
What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.
That’s what would be called “actionable advice” in business-speak, by which I mean it’s the kind of writing tip that’s easy and fun to put to work right away in whatever piece of fiction you might be writing right now. I know I plan to.