Monday, March 2, 2009

A Tip For Developing Unique Characters

The first part of this post is a short exercise, and please follow the directions precisely if you want it to work.

First, read the following scene:

A man stood on the window ledge of a three story building. It was early in the morning, and there weren't any cars in the road below. He shuffled his feet closer to the edge. His hands fell away from the brick wall behind him so that he teetered unsteadily. He noticed a woman walking down the street in his direction. At first she did not notice him. Then, she stopped and looked up. She shouted, "Don't do it!" to which the man replied, "It's too late," before dropping.

Okay, now without trying to be consciously creative in any way, describe what you imagined the man and woman looking like in this scene. Don't reread it. Read the rest of the post when you're done.

Done yet?

I imagine the man to be about 5' 9", 35-years-old with brown wavy hair that hasn't been cut in the last few weeks. I see him in an affordable gray suit with a darker tie and a white shirt. He has a hairy chest. He's trim. He has brown scuffed shoes, a watch, no undershirt. He's Caucasian. His face is shaved. The backs of his hands are hairy.

The woman is thirty and 5' 5" and also Caucasian. She has shoulder length, straight mousy brown hair with lighter highlights. She wears a turquoise blouse with a dark printed skirt and sometimes when the wind catches it, her slip shows just a bit. She's slender. Her clavicles are visible below her smooth neck. She wears a thin gold chain and lght make-up. Her breasts are small. Her legs and toned. She wears high heels but not too high.

Who are these people? Well, for me, these are my concept of "average" people in my version of America. Whether or not they are really the average of every person in this country doesn't matter. What matters is that, when I start to read a book, these are the characters I imagine in my head until the writer has given me more clues. And, I'm willing to bet that these characters are at least sort of similar to the characters you imagined in your head. Maybe not the turquoise blouse.

When we set out to create characters for a reader, we always have to contend with the "average" character that most readers bring with them in their imagination. So, we cannot assume that they will know that the man is actually blind or that the woman has a blue beehive hairdo like Marge Simpson. More importantly, perhaps, we can't assume that the reader knows that a character is Guatemalan or Korean or Hawaiian without telling them. In the current status of American readership, if our characters have any trait that is different from the average person people imagine, the reader expects that trait to be revealed to us early on in the story. Otherwise, if they find something out later, they will feel deceived or that the writer has made a big mistake like a bad set up for the punchline of a joke. (Oh, what I forgot to tell you was that Ed was a two-headed horse.) I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but I do think that's an interesting idea to be aware of when we are trying to create unique characters.

The term "creative writing" implies that we are making something out of nothing. But, more often, I think we, as writers, are actually changing what is already there. A reader starts a story with preconceived notions of what to expect in their characters, and our goal is to alter that notion so that a character is unique and the reader can be entertained or engaged in some way.

(Of course, other things in the book can bias a reader's opinions. If the novel is called Eating Curry in Beijing by Yongqin Jiang, the reader might start off thinking that the characters could be Chinese. For me personally, this is sometimes interesting to learn since people often think that I am Latino or some other nationality based on my name.)

These assumptions by readers, including ourselves, affect what details we need to reveal and what we can take for granted, if anything. Sometimes, when describing someone we don't bother to get beyond a few superficial details. Sex, age, occupation, name -- maybe the length of their hair, their eye color, or the shape of their nose. But we have to realize that any detail we leave out will be filled in by the stats of this "average" person. If we really want to make a lasting impression and surprise a reader with a living, fully-formed and unique character, we need to keep the idea of what readers assume on their own and then create a character that deviates from their original image. What makes a person memorable is their originality, not their sameness. And, what if your character really is average? Even the most average-looking person has unique physical features if you look at them closely enough. Find that frog-shaped mole on the small of her back.


  1. I didn't imagine either character in as much detail as you did, but I did imagine them as my version of average.

    Man: dark hair, business cut, not overweight, not overly muscular.

    Woman: light brown / dirty blonde hair, medium length, wearing skirt and blouse.

    I get bored with books where all the is a formula Handsome Man and Attractive Woman. They can be good looking, but not a paint-by-numbers description.

    I think the most important thing for creative characters is in their actions, and the motives behind those actions. We are not defined by the challenges we face in life, but rather by our responses to those challenges.

    For this exercise, the thing that I thought most about was not what the man and woman looked like, but why he was jumping, and what she did after he landed on the pavement in front of her.

    Did he scream on the way down? Did she close her eyes, or did she watch him hit?

  2. Very, very good post, Davin!

    This is exactly what I needed as I am in the middle of edits on my novel. I've realized that I have not given ONE word of description for one of my characters. He's completely nondescript. My question is, do I really need a description for him? Because he really is just average, but as Rick says, what makes him more than a cardboard cutout are his actions... and they are some of the most interesting actions in the book.

    I'm thinking I need to provide him with at least ONE unique detail of description, though!

    This also helps me with fleshing out the other character descriptions I have. I think your next post needs to focus on HOW to describe, because I HATE word dumps of description. They often need to be incorporated in a creative way to work effectively, in my opinion.

    Thanks for such a great post! (was wondering how I can read more of your work and if you'd like invites to my novel blogs)

  3. Excellent post. This is one I struggle with--I like to think that if I write my characters without much detail, then the reader can imagine them as however they want. It doesn't work that way, though. It is necessary for me to develop a solid image of each individual character and to present that image professionally.

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  5. I didn't imagine them at all. I admit my eyes skipped to your 5'9" before I read the paragraph, but I doubt it affected the outcome.

    The truth is I'm a fan of parables, so I seek a deeper meaning from most everything. I'm also impatient.

    It's something I struggle with as a writer because eye and hair color mean little to me. I'm more interested in what each character represents, what lesson can be learned from their actions, etc.

    If I'm reading a scene about a wagon and dynamite, I don't care about the wagon's color or the dynamite's texture. Is the wagon going to explode or not?!

  6. I think I agree mostly with Rick and Justus: that the physical description of a character isn't all that important, and doesn't so much tell us about someone's character. I also confess that I can't really tell you what most of my favorite literary characters look like. I can, however, tell you a lot about who they are as individuals.

    My theory is that, unless there is something about the way a character looks that signals a) something about their personality to set them apart from the reader, or b) something about their personality to separate them from the surrounding characters, it's best to say as non-specific about appearance as you can. I think that readers want to identify with fictional characters, and too often authors get in the way of that. Although certainly in types of genre fiction there will of necessity be characters who are radically different from the reader, and one trope of sci/fi or fantasy is that no matter what the humanoid looks like, he's a human underneath and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. (Yes, I learned a lot about race relations from sci/fi in the 70s!)

    I've also heard that, in romance writing, descriptions of clothing are very important, and a book that purports to be a romance but doesn't give adequate attention to such details, will be a failure.

    But still, I think you have hit upon the most important key to successful characterization: you have to think in terms of how the character is different, from the reader and from other characters in the story. It doesn't have to be wildy creative, but we do have the job of comparing and contrasting, even in genre fiction.

  7. I did your exercise and came up with 'average' people for the scene. In my first novel, I took the route of letting other characters point out a few physical features of other characters here and there. Such as when one MC first meets another MC, he notices some things about her. Also I simply must give some physical descriptions of my MCs, because well, I just must :)

  8. I imagined the woman red hair, long, and she was wearing a skirt and a blouse.

    The man was average height, and build. In a business suit and wearing a hat.

    I figured the guy had one of those ponzi schemes going and that's why he jumped.

    I imagined the woman screaming and trying to help him only to realize she couldn't look at him because of what happened to his body as he landed.

    But I see what you're saying and in my writing I am worried about too much description so I skimp on it a lot! I need to do more of it. Thanks for such a great tool!

  9. Hi everyone! This is a truly fascinating set of comments! I'm surprised by all the differences in opinion for an idea -- physical descriptions are important -- that I assumed people would take for granted. I really love that we can think about these issues, discuss them, and learn from each other.

    I feel like I've opened up a really good topic for discussion, so I'll revisit this post and the great comments again for tomorrow and maybe again later on. This is really eye-opening for me. I'll try to argue my case again and definitely try to elaborate on some of the other ideas presented here.

    One point I want to make now, though, is that, yes, I definitely agree that actions are incredibly important in creating characters. Having a character that is abundantly described will not finish the writer's job of making them memorable. But, I do think the visual is important in revealing character, including personality. Writers must rely on multiple techniques to make their work stand out, and physical description is one of those techniques.

    Lady Glamis, I'll also come up with a discussion on how to avoid detail dumps! That's a great idea! And, I was planning to post some links to some online stories, but maybe I'll do that later once everyone has said what they want to say on this point. And, YES, I'd love to read your books. I've been meaning to ask you for an invitation to your blogs, but wanted to wait until you were settled down from your trips.

  10. I imgined the man and woman very much like you described them. Strange, that there IS an average...

    In any case, I am not overly fond of description heavy writing. I don't feel that I need not know EXACTLY what a perosn looks like, just a few unique features. So when I write, I try to think of three features that make each character individual and basically stick to that.

    I don't know why, but hair descriptions are almost a must for me, while eyes don't seem to matter (whereas many writers focus on eyes heavily). I think that's because those are the priorities I ntoice in real life too.

    Have you ever just people watched? You know... to find someone or some feature that looks like what you are imagining for a character...

    I agree with a couple other commenters. Actions, reactions, thoughts, and emotions, are WAY more important descriptions of a person than theie physical attributes. Though we can't leave everyone "average" either, can we?

  11. Hmmm, I really didn't imagine the characters as looking any particular way; I waited for the writing to show me. This is basically the way I read. And I sometimes feel frustrated if writers don't show me how their characters look. I think this is more the writer's job and not the reader's. In my opinion at least, the writer should do at least 75% of the work. Readers aren't obligated to see a fictional world's aspects; the writer must make them see those aspects. And if a writer leaves too much vagueness, she shouldn't be insulted if many readers can't clearly see her intent.

    I want to make sure readers get what I'm saying and showing. I've always liked "easy reading is hard writing"--I think that expression's often true. I don't like fiction that's a monumental reading effort, nor do I want to write the same. I want to both enlighten AND entertain. Those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive, at least to me.

    I think appearance is just as much a part of a character as any other part, and for my most important characters, I try to show all their facets, especially if sexual attraction is involved. For more minor characters, I typically use a single line that sums them up exterior-wise. But I've been told that even my minor characters are well-developed and that's good because they tend not to be in many works. So I guess I've done some things well there, at least according to those readers.

    My writing is very visual. I'm very visual. I like getting a view and giving one.

    However, having said all that, I DO think there may be a general movement away from depicting the physical about fictional characters. In recent years I've heard quite a few people say they don't want to read too much description because they like imagining the characters' appearances. So I'm not sure what the "best" thing to do is.

    Sorry I went on so long--I agree this is a really good topic!

  12. Perhaps it's not relevant to a conversation about (I think we all assume) characters in novels, but my two favorite short stories are "Hills Like White Elephants" by Hemingway and "The Dead" by James Joyce. Hemingway gives us not a single word of physical description of any character in the story, and Joyce gives us a sort of capsule description of almost every character. There are a lot more people in Joyce's story than there are in Hemingway's, certainly, but I do think that Joyce's descriptions are for the purpose of sorting the characters into groups, and that there are only one or two types of characters in "The Dead." His thumbnail descriptions are an elegant way of segregating the characaters quickly for us.

    In my last completed novel, the most extensive physical details are given for two men who are minor characters, and I gave all that detail to show only that they are ostentatiously wealthy.

    I have a feeling that we are all talking at cross-purposes to Davin's original point.


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