17 Character

Having looked at location description, we now turn our attention to character description. Many of the rules of thumb, which applied to location description, will also apply to character description.

As the reader progresses through your book they will be constantly creating and recreating a picture of the current scene in their mind’s eye. This scene will consist of both the location and the characters. It is your job, as a writer, to provide adequate character description.

So what is ‘adequate’?

In short, you need to provide enough description that the reader is able to paint a picture of the character in their mind’s eye. The same rule applies here as for the location — the more important the character, the more description that is required.

So, for example, your main character should have a detailed, multi-layered description. This should consist of not only a basic physical description, but also the character physical ticks and traits. On the flip side, minor characters should have description levels that match their importance (or lack of it). If the character is a fleeting component of a minor scene, then a simple ‘the postman’, may well be enough.

One rule of thumb to use when writing character description is that if a character is to appear in just one scene, then include just a simple one line description. However, the more scenes in which the character appears, the more description is required.

As an example, here’s the opening description for The Old Man who is one of the two main characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. This description in the second paragraph of the story:

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Let’s go back to our mate John for an example. Imagine that you are writing a book in which a package has been sent to John. It is important that the reader knows John received the package, therefore you write this short scene…

The ring of the doorbell echoed down the sparse hallway. John stepped into the hall and walked to the closed door. Turning the brass handle he swung the door open. On the doorstep stood the uniformed postman, a brown crumpled packed in his hands.

“John Smith?” the postman said looking at the address label.
“Yup,” John said.
“Here you go,” the postman said, handing over the parcel and turning to leave.
“Thanks,” John said as he closed the door.

In this section the postman is simply ‘uniformed’. This is the postman’s one and only appearance in the book. He was nothing more that a tool to get the parcel into John’s hands. Therefore, there is no need to layer in a detailed description.

Now… let’s look at another example.

Let’s take the same scene but this time the postman is of more importance. It turns out the postman is actually a hit man who is following John. A few scenes later we will see John going to the pub for a drink with this friends, he’s going to bump into the postman (who is following him), but is not going to recognize him. However, we want the keen eyed reader to make the link.

Suddenly, the importance of the postman is increased. However, we face one small problem. If we were to layer in a very detailed description, the reader would smell a rat. We’ve been trained to match the description level with importance, more of that later.

So, in this example we are looking to balance the description with enough to make an impression, but not so much the reader is suspicious.

The ring of the doorbell echoed down the sparse hallway. John stepped into the hall and walked to the closed door. Turning the brass handle he swung the door open. On the doorstep stood the uniformed postman, a brown crumpled packed in his hands. The postman was taller than John, his smiling face, adorned with a long handlebar moustache, beamed down.

“John Smith?” the postman said looking at the address label.
“Yup,” John said.
“Here you go,” the postman said, handing over the parcel and turning to leave.
“Thanks,” John said as he closed the door.

This time we’ve added in a new line of description. Though not subtle, it is enough for the reader to paint a new picture of the postman. It is also enough that when we mention ‘handlebar moustache’ in a couple of scene’s time so that the reader may make the connection.

One little tip… the postman in this scene is actually based on someone I know, who, incidentally, is not a postman. So when I wrote this scene I had an image of my friend in my mind. Though I only added the moustache, the character appearance is fully detailed in my mind’s eye.

The final type of character description is for your main characters. If you look back at the location section you will see the concept of layering description. The same concept applies for your main characters. Though we want you to build detailed descriptions of your character’s features and actions, we don’t want to do it all at once. In fact, we want to do the opposite.

When a major character is first introduced to the reader you should include a couple of lines of description. At this point you are focusing on the major features. You are trying to paint a very rough outline of the character, just enough for the reader to conjure an image in their head. For example, 6ft, blond hair and blue eyes will be enough in the first instance.

Then, over the following scenes, you need to start layering in more detailed descriptions. This is not only physical description, but also habits and ticks that will bring your character to life. If your character strokes his beard whilst thinking, then you need to be adding this in early on. A good place to do this is via beats.
You must resist the temptation to go overboard. A line or two of description, every couple of scenes will be enough. You must not overload the reader. The problem is that each time you add a layer of description you are triggering the reader to redraw the image in their mind’s eye. If you change too quickly, or too often, you will just confuse the reader.

If done slowly and methodically, this system will allow you to build a complex series of physical attributes for you character. Over time the reader will pick up on the traits and allow you to add another level to your story telling.

“Remember that guy in the pub with the moustache?” said John stroking his beard.
“I am sure I’ve seen him before.”

Description Matches Importance

It has already been said that the level of description must match the importance of the character, but this is worthy of a little further examination. Over the years readers have been trained to see low levels of description as indicating that the character in question is unimportant.

This is the Red Shirt principle.

In the 60s Sci Fi series Star Trek it become an in-joke that any red shirted crew man, joining Kirk and his team for a off-ship planet visit, was doomed to a grisly death. A fan, with too much time on his hands, worked out that of the 59-crew members killed in the original series, 43 (73%) were wearing red shirts.

Of course, red shirts were just that, red shirts. They had no back-story, no development and sometimes no name!
Your novel will be packed with red shorts, characters with so little description that the reader will see them but ignore them. The postman with the moustache was a red shirt. These are the glue that holds your plot together.

Now… a word of warning.

In some stories you will want to trick the reader, you will want to sneak an important character into a scene, but disguise them as a red shirt. As a rule this should be avoided. There is no more guaranteed way to upset a reader than to have a red shirt turn out to be a major part of a plot.

Remember the unwritten rule… the more description the more important the character. The reader knows this rule, they’ve been trained with years of books and movies to understand that characters with no back-story can be ignored. It is an unwritten conversion. If you simply break this conversion to trick the reader, they will be enjoyed.

But what happens if you want to hide a character in plain sight?

Perhaps you are writing a crime genre and you want the killer in the plot without the reader knowing. What you mustn’t do in this situation is make the character a red shirt. Instead, you can use stereotyping.

Stereotyping is when you call upon a well-understood character type to short cut the description process. If I say ‘frail old man,’ or ‘huge body builder’ or ‘grumpy teenager’, they all conjure up an image. A stereotype.

In fact, you should routinely use stereotypes to short cut your description process. In fact, the best way to wield a red shirt is via a stereotype. Look at our postman (without the moustache), when I said postman, you conjured up a ready made imagine. I didn’t need to say anything else; you had already done all the work.

However, you can use this stereotype to distract the reader.

This is not the same as tricking the reader by making a red shirt a major character, this is using the reader’s own stereotype to hide a character in plain sight.

In Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady, Dahl gives us with a master class in stereotyping. The story goes like this… The main character Billy Weaver stays at a bed and breakfast ran by a charming old lady. The twist to the story is that the old lady is… (look away now if you’ve not read the story) a serial killer who plans to poison Billy and plans to have him stuffed.

The problem Dahl faces is how can he trick the reader into thinking the Landlady is harmless until the last possible moment? The slight of hand comes in the unexpected behavior of the landlady. Dahl intentionally has his killer in plain sight.

The first we see of the landlady is this description…

She was about forty-five or fifty years old, and the moment see saw him, she gave him a warm welcoming smile.

Then, on the next page…

She was half-way up the stairs, and she paused with one hand on the stair-rail, turning her head sand smiling down at him with pale lips.

Add to this the narrator’s insistence that she is a ‘dotty’ lady and who would expect her of anything harmful?
The power of Dahl’s writing is that he gives us what we expect. The narrator TELLS us the she is a ‘dotty, old woman’ and we believe him, why wouldn’t we? Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (though The Twits is my all time favorite book), he wouldn’t lie to us, would he? Dahl’s plays on our stereotypes. We are told it’s an old woman, so we see an old woman.

The result is a memorable twist. This all said, the foundation for character description is not complicated:

  • If you are describing your main character, layer in description over a number of scenes.
  • If the character will play a part in more than one scene, add a few lines of description (and perhaps a layer or two).
  • If the character is a red shirt, then less is more.

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