Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The No No of Dumping the Character Description on the Reader

© Marta Stephens 2010 all rights reserved

Since the release of my first novel in 2007, I continue to feel somewhat frustrated whenever I'm asked why I don’t give a complete description of my characters for the reader. Actually, I do, not in the form of a full narrative describing hair/eye color, height, weight, age, etc., but they are slipped in from the other characters’ POV; traits are also given via the character’s actions.

To make this point, authors Renni Browne and Dave King give the following explanation in a chapter titled Characterization and Exposition in their book, SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by (second edition). In it the authors wrote:

“It’s often a good idea to introduce a new character with enough physical description for your readers to picture him or her. As with describing your settings, all you need are a few concrete, idiomatic details to jump-start your readers’ imagination. ... when it comes to characters’ personalities, it’s much more engaging to have these emerge from character action, reaction, interior monologue, and dialogue than from description.”
And this:

“When you define your character the minute you introduce them, you may be setting boundary lines that your readers will use to interpret your characters’ actions through the rest of the book. But if you allow your readers to get to them in his or her own way, thus getting a deeper sense of who your characters are than you could ever convey in a summary.”
When I developed the character of Sam Harper, I envisioned him as a man in his early to mid 30’s, slender, medium height, blond or light brown hair, definitely blue eyes. As noted, I don’t force feed the reader with a full-blown description in chapter one, paragraph one, so it was interesting when I started to get feedback from some of my friends about the character. The women who were in their 20’s to early 40’s pictured him as I did, however, those in their later years, had very different ideas of "the perfect looking man." One friend of mine who is in her late 60’s imagined him as a dashing Sean Connery in his days as 007. Interesting, huh? BTW who doesn't think Sean is to die for?

What this says to me is that my writing may be based and influenced by my life experiences (likes/dislikes etc,), but the reader will bring into the mix the experiences that have shaped his/her life (likes/dislikes, turn-ons/offs etc.). I wanted Harper to come across as a strong-willed determined character and thus focus on his actions, internal dialogue, his doubts and convictions, his emotions, reactions, etc., even his sense of humor. But his physical descriptions come from the other characters and ... and here's where it gets really interesting. Harper's love interest sees and describes him in a completely different way than does his work partner. Now we're getting into window characters.

So , even though I have a very clear image of what Sam Harper looks like, I’m okay with the reader imagining him looking like Sean Connery or whoever else they like, so long as it keeps them reading!


Shirley said...

Wow. I just purchased the book, Self Editing for the Fiction Writer yesterday. Haven't even opened it yet, but now I really can't wait to read it.

Sheila Deeth said...

I think I very easily attach a description in my mind - Sean Connery or Harrison Ford for example. Too much "real" description might disappoint me - how could I not want to see Sean Connery as I read?

Sounds an interesting resource. I'll look out for it.

s.w. vaughn said...

I'm absolutely all for leaving most of the physical description to the reader. As a reader myself, it's so much nicer to imagine the characters the way I see them. I find it really jarring to have a character described in such minute detail that I have no choice in my head about what he or she looks like.

Give me a brief sketch, and I'm a happy reader. :-)

Marta Stephens said...

Hey Shirley, a couple more for your shelf if you don't have them are: "Doln't Murder Your Mystery" by Chris Roerden, and Donald Maass's "Writng The Breakout Novel." :()

Hmmm,Sheila, a young Harrison works for me. ;)

Yup, SW, nothing worse than to have it all spelled out for me.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aaron Paul Lazar said...

What a great piece, Marta. And spot on! I like getting a few glimpses of the character's physical traits, but after that, they're all mine!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

What a great piece, Marta. And spot on! I like getting a few glimpses of the character's physical traits, but after that, they're all mine!