Character is… (Part 2.2) – Description is…

Bringing Your Character to Life via Description

This is the third in an ongoing series of StoryCrafting/StoryTelling posts I’m publishing for my own benefit; explaining something helps me determine if I’ve truly learned it or am simply parroting what others have offered. I learn my weak spots, what I need to study, et cetera.

Previous offerings include:

  • Atmosphere is…
  • Character is… (Part 1)
  • Character is… (Part 2.1) – Exposition is…

    And note that I’ll update/upgrade/edit these posts as I learn more.


    Description – Second most economical, second least effective. If you must provide a list of details, make the last one explosive, eye-catching, something highly contrasting with the previous, preferably bland, descriptive details.

     
    Imagine you’re going to cook a specific dish for some reason. I’ll choose Fettuccine Alfredo because I made it for Susan last night.

    Start with a list of ingredients:

    • light cream
    • milk
    • butter
    • flour
    • parmesan
    • ground pepper
    • salt
    • red pepper
    • chicken
    • garlic
    • heavy cream
    • ricotta
    • romano
    • asiago


    Good and not enough. If I dumped them all into a pot it wouldn’t be very good Fettuccine Alfredo. You can have all the ingredients but you have to put them together correctly to get the desired outcome.

    Ingredients must be in the correct order to get the desired result.

     
    What I need next is the order of putting it all together:

    • Melt the butter in a pot
    • Stir in the flour until it thickens
    • Stir in the heavy cream
    • Stir in the parmesan
    • Stir in the romano
    • Stir in the asiago
    • Stir in the ricotta
    • Crush the garlic and add it
    • Add the crushed pepper and salt
    • Add the red pepper and chicken
    • Add light cream and milk to get the desired artery-clogging consistency


    Much closer but now we’re missing the amounts of each. For the purposes of sharing a real recipe, I’m no help there; I cook by taste, smell, touch, sound, and experience. Want to know how much asiago to put into the Alfredo? Come watch me make it.

    So there are three parts to a good recipe; 1) ingredients, 2) preparation order, 3) amounts.

    Description is a “Character Recipe”

     
    Imagine a character as some specific dish you want to make. Minor characters don’t require a lot of prepping or planning. If a character’s only purpose is to carry a drink to the main character, “Felice ignored the waiter as he placed her Manhattan on the table.” is all you need (I describe five types of characters starting here). Felice is ignoring the waiter and so should the reader.

    But what if you want to make a more important character? Perhaps a main, primary, or secondary character?

    First, make a list of observations about the character. Note, observations, not opinions. Observations are like tall, short, bearded, wears eyeglasses, et cetera. Opinions are when you start assigning values to the observations; tall enough to be a basketball center, coke-bottle thick eyeglasses, et cetera.

    I’ll use myself as an example:

    • 6′ tall
    • 225#
    • legally blind
    • defines his world by sound, touch, smell
    • reads 3+ books/week
    • listens to music/plays a variety of musical instruments
    • has many interests/studies in many fields
    • feeds wild animals
    • has been married to Susan for 41 years


    What you have above is a list of ingredients for “Joseph.” You have a list, not a description and definitely not a character.

    The above is great for a character description in some kind of procedural (police procedurals and medical thrillers come immediately to mind). Consider the following:
    Sheriff Hanson handed profile sheets to her deputies. “We’re looking for Joseph. He’s six feet tall, 225 pounds, wears glasses, usually has a book with him, usually has in earbuds, tends to throw seed to birds, and chances are he’ll contact his wife, Susan, at some point…”

    That’s a character description that works pretty well because a main or at least primary character – Sheriff Hanson – is describing the other character – Joseph. Change the situation from Sheriff Hanson and her deputies to Dr. Mulhaven and her surgical team and the characteristics change little; Dr. Mulhaven gathered her surgical team. “The patient’s name is ‘Joseph’. Six feet, 225, good health, remember that without his glasses he’s blind. Talk to reassure him while he’s going in and coming out of anesthesia. He may reach out to you. He may ask you to hold his hand. His wife’s in observation and he’ll want her so we’ve arranged for her to talk to him. He may ask if his animals are okay. He may ask if he can read a book. He may ask what music we’re playing, although it’s more likely he’ll tell us what it is. In detail.”

    Note that the same basic information is presented in both examples. The difference comes in the order things are presented and how much of each item is presented.

    1) Ingredients, 2) preparation order, 3) amounts.

    The first example can be a missing person, a wanted criminal, and most importantly, the description is of an object more than a person. The Sheriff Hanson example shows the reader a lot about the sheriff, her deputies, and their attitude towards Joseph. The second example is a description of a person more than an object. It also shows the reader a lot about the surgical team and their attitude towards Joseph.

    Also note that neither example offers opinions about Joseph, only observations based on appearance and behavior.

    Incorporating 1) Ingredients, 2) preparation order, and 3) amounts so it’s not so “Listy”
    The above examples are interesting because of the context; law enforcement and/or medical team. Let’s introduce Joseph in a less procedural context:
    Joseph put the book on top of the stack beside his recliner, marking his place with a thin brass G-clef his wife, Susan, gave him for their 41st wedding anniversary. He chuckled. She gave it to him and he explained the difference between G-clefs, F-clefs, and the roaming C-clefs. She kissed him, patted his hand and said, “It’s a bookmark, Sweetie.” He removed his glasses to massage his pince-nez, the price for wearing heavy lenses most of his life, and stood as he gently touched things around him; books, chair, table, stereo cabinet, musical instruments. Although only six feet tall and two-twenty-five pounds, he moved carefully, navigating more by touch and sound than sight. Outside, a family of raccoons stared in at him. “Be there in a second, children. Let me get some cookies for you.”

    As before, note that the 1) ingredients aren’t different from the original list. The 2) order and 3) amounts make the above a portrait rather than a procedural. All the examples prepare the reader for Joseph, each example prepares the reader for a different Joseph. The last example is longer, definitely, and also presents (perhaps) the most human Joseph and could be used in any type of fiction and definitely literary fiction.

    You can also spread a character’s description over several pages or chapters, only revealing aspects as they are needed. Be careful when spreading revelatory character information over several pages or chapters; contradictory characteristics may crop up that throw the reader (and indicate sloppy copy- and continuity-editing). Contradictory characteristics can only appear with good reason. Example: a woman known for her green thumb and beautiful house plants pours bleach on them, killing them. This is (to me) a hideous act. It becomes a revealing character trait if we learn her husband has betrayed her and, unable to retaliate towards him, she punishes other things she loved and cared for, her household plants, which symbolized her happy domestic life and which she now realizes was a lie.

    But for that revealing character trait to work we have to show throughout the story that this supposedly loving and kind woman is capable of such a hateful, hurtful act. Perhaps earlier in the story, during conversation with a minor character, she reveals a hateful thing she did to some animal or living creature, something that shows she’s capable of horror. Perhaps her child comes to her in pain and afraid and her response is to laugh rather than to show compassion. Tell this story from that child’s point-of-view – even though the child is actually a minor character who merely recounts the story – and you have an intense, revealing, and possibly disturbing character portrait.

    Something simpler – a change in haircolor or style, shaving off or growing a beard – indicates a change in the character’s internal status (self-concept).

    What about that “last, explosive detail”?
    My Fettuccine Alfredo recipe contains red pepper and chicken, the former adds both sweetness and color, the latter some texture and protein. Most of my recipes include one or two out-of-the-ordinary ingredients that are not explosive (one hopes) but add something unprepared for to the dish.

    Let’s go back to Sheriff Hanson, Dr. Mulhaven, and our descriptive paragraph and add a single detail to surprise the reader.

    Sheriff Hanson handed profile sheets to her deputies. “We’re looking for Joseph. He’s six feet tall, 225 pounds, wears glasses, usually has a book with him, usually has in earbuds, tends to throw seed to birds. He has a huge blue bulge with a dark center in the middle of his forehead. Looks like a third eye. He killed a guy who made a joke about it then killed his wife of forty-one years, Susan.”

    Dr. Mulhaven gathered her surgical team. “The patient’s name is ‘Joseph’. Six feet, 225, good health, remember that without his glasses he’s blind. Talk to reassure him while he’s going in and coming out of anesthesia. He may reach out to you. He may ask you to hold his hand. His wife’s in observation and he’ll want her so we’ve arranged for her to talk to him. He may ask if his animals are okay. He may ask if he can read a book. He may ask what music we’re playing, although it’s more likely he’ll tell us what it is. In detail. He may reach for his forehead, attempt to open the third eye he had there. Remind him the surgery removed it. That’s why we’re here today.”

    Joseph put the book on top of the stack beside his recliner, marking his place with a thin brass G-clef his wife, Susan, gave him for their 41st wedding anniversary. He chuckled. She gave it to him and he explained the difference between G-clefs, F-clefs, and the roaming C-clefs. She kissed him, patted his hand and said, “It’s a bookmark, Sweetie.” He removed his glasses to massage his pince-nez, the price for wearing heavy lenses most of his life, and stood as he gently touched things around him; books, chair, table, stereo cabinet, musical instruments. Although only six feet tall and two-twenty-five pounds, he moved carefully, navigating more by touch and sound than sight. Outside, a family of raccoons stared in at him. He closed his two main eyes and opened his third, flush in the center of his forehead, seeing the raccoons in the infrared, checking them for internal injuries and parasites. Satisfied, he winked it shut. “Be there in a second, children. Let me get some cookies for you.”

    The Sheriff Hanson example uses a new detail to create something unexpected, the Dr. Mulhaven uses a new detail to create reader confusion – what’s wrong with Joseph? How did he get a third eye? The final example uses a new detail to create a different kind of reader confusion – what is Joseph that he has three eyes?

    In each case, the same new detail used to different effect. Maybe not explosive, but different enough that the reader’s attention goes to it and knows it’s a factor in the story.

    Your thoughts?


    Care for a critique of your writing? Let me know.