Wednesday evening, 63° and clear
Listening to My Morning Jacket, Grab a Body
This morning my daughter Charlotte, who is away studying agriculture at Michigan State University, texted some images to me. She’s currently reading State of Love & Trust and was inspired to draw this story’s characters. This got me thinking about the keys I use when describing fictional characters.
A little backstory: I have always written, and Charlotte has always drawn. I still have the first person she ever drew, which looked like a smiling potato with stick arms and legs. That was pretty impressive detail for a two-year-old.
Throughout much her childhood I’ve been working on one novel or another, and the roots of State of Love & Trust go back to when she was still in elementary school. She always asked if she could read my story, and I always said yes … when you’re 18. But as it happened, I put that manuscript away for a lot of years and began polishing it for publication shortly after she’d left for college.
She’s 19 now. While she was packing for this year’s fall semester I offered her a copy of my newly published book. I didn’t know if or when she’d get around to reading it; college is a busy time. To my delight, she dug right into it and has shared her reactions with me along the way. It’s been a blast hearing her perspective on Ellie and Saint’s slow-burning, Pearl Jam fueled relationship.
Describing Fictional Characters
The beauty of fiction is how heavily it relies on the reader’s imagination. I believe in engaging the reader by keeping the story moving and not getting bogged down in unnecessarily descriptive details. Descriptions, even when they’re wonderfully executed, can be a drag if they don’t move the story forward or contribute to characterization.
When describing fictional characters, respect the POV character first, reader imagination second, and don’t bog it down with details or purple prose. A single, evocative word can do more for characterization than pages of purple prose. You can’t completely control how your readers will envision your story’s characters anyway. You’ll want to give them an idea of the characters physical appearance, then let their imagines take over so they’re fully engaged with the story.
Great characterization will always stem more from how a character thinks and behaves than how she looks. Ellie Rafferty, the main character in State of Love& Trust, is someone who will lie for a friend, eavesdrop, make up her own strange religion, feed a dog that terrifies her, snap to a judgment, and overspend on Pearl Jam merchandise. These things say so much more about her than her hair color, eye color or height could ever convey.
Since the stories I write are in deep first-person point of view, character descriptions (really, all descriptions) are strictly limited to what the viewpoint character would observe or think. For example, Clive may describe Becca as more beautiful than she actually is, because he’s so in love with her. Ellie might refer to her hair as “going all frizapalooza” as she fights to keep it under control, but she’s not going to describe it. By the same token, she’s fascinated with Saint and has no problem going into detail about him, right down to his roasted-cashew scent.
As a writer, it is incredible to see how readers react to your work, and a rare treat to get a glimpse into what they imagine the characters look like. It’s also wonderful to know that your story has made enough of an impression that a reader would take the time and effort to draw the characters. Even if that reader is your daughter.
Or maybe, especially if she is.
I’m quite proud of Charlotte. She is brave, compassionate, smart, determined and a very hard worker. And she can draw, too.