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Character Description

As I embarked on a new project, I was happily trolling through catalogs and stock photo sites looking for images of people for my characters. Most of them were just too darn pretty. I like more interesting-looking people, which is probably why I prefer British television to American television.

My solution was to create an image folder full of face, nose, eye, ear, hand, feet, and body shapes. I added hair, eye, and skin colors. I plan to do something useful with that file, because my nonfiction is a lovely distraction from the fiction I'm supposed to be writing. 

If you make your own file, choose an item from each category and create a composite, download a photo, or tear one out of a magazine. You could take two separate photos and merge them together with the top of one person's face added to the bottom of another's.

Character descriptions are one of my biggest challenges. We are advised to avoid using food metaphors and laundry lists. So, the goal is to do this exercise for each character then sprinkle the descriptions in as needed.

While looking at the photo or composite character, take a moment to write a few sentences of description about each part of his face and body.
Then ask:

1) What is his most prominent pleasing feature, the first thing you notice?

2) What is his most prominent displeasing feature?

3) What features are different from everyone else?

4) Skin is rarely perfect. What imperfections does he have: scars, birthmarks, moles, freckles, odd growths, or sprockets of hair in inconvenient places?

5) What unusual tics does he have: twitches, snorts, blinks, fidgets, hair twirling, lock tugging, scratching, adjusting clothes, or tugging at collars or sleeves?

6) How does he hold himself? When he enters a room, is he meek or bold, comfortable or uncomfortable? Does he try to hide in plain sight or sprawl so that everyone is forced to accommodate him?

7) How does he walk? Does he waddle, shuffle, strut, or rampage?

8) How does he breathe, loudly or so softly you're not sure he is breathing?

9) Since the descriptions are through the prism of your character's point of view, how does this character's overall appearance strike him? Does he find the person attractive, unattractive, classy, or dowdy?

10) How does your character feel about the other character? Is he indifferent, interested, bored, annoyed, happy, attracted, or repelled?

Try developing a list of fresh descriptive sentences for each character and keep it nearby when you are writing scenes. Scratch them off as you use them. It can help you avoid repetitive descriptions and laundry lists.

The Story Scrapbook

Whether you like to cut and paste paper or you prefer Pinterest, a story scrapbook is a useful tool to make your descriptions come alive. 

Suggestions for content include: 

1) Images of people for your characters. 

Sources: Store catalogs, advertisements, photos of famous people, national geographic articles, model agencies, acting agencies, or stock photo websites.

2) Images of personal possessions.

Sources: Sales fliers and magazines, jewelry and luxury item advertisements, and online stores.

3) Images of clothing and costumes.

Sources: Clothing catalogs or advertisements, drawings of historic costumes, shoe catalogs, historic photographs, and magazines.

4) Images of rooms and decor.

Sources: Home and Garden magazines, architectural digests, furniture catalogs or store ads, paintings, photos of houses in a neighborhood, hotel or resort brochures, and websites of homes for sale, or historical homes that allow visitors.

5) Images of outdoor settings.

Sources: Tourist brochures, National Geographic Traveler, Google maps, local magazines, city guides, vacation photos, and visitor’s websites.

6) Images of modes of transportation, airport, bus, cab, or ship terminals and/or airplane, bus, cab, and boat interiors.

Sources: Airline magazines, travel brochures, boating and leisure magazines, and service provider’s websites.

7) Images of automobiles.

Sources: Car ads, car company websites and brochures, custom and collector car sites, transportation archival photos, and car show ads or brochures for historical cars.

8) Images of weapons.

Sources: Gun catalogs, gun show advertisements, firing range advertisements, military history sites, or other gun related websites.

9) Images of animals (pets or wild),

Sources: National Geographic, pet books, pet product advertisements, pet stores, breeding groups’ websites, pet shows, zoos, and stock photo websites.

10) Tools of various trades.

Sources: How to manuals, professional websites, sales ads, tool catalogs, installation instructions, and provider websites.

You can use a binder, a computer folder, or a virtual pin board. Having images to reference makes coming up with fresh descriptions for your story fun and easy.

The Bare Bones Draft

I used to waste a lot of time on my first draft. I agonized over each sentence. I filled it full of stuff I would later cut or alter. Revision layers took forever to complete, especially repetitive words.

My first drafts are now skeletons. I gradually add muscle and skin and dress the bones in the revision layers.

I start with a conflict outline and a timeline (which I generally mess up somehow anyway and have to go back and fix).

When I sit down to write a scene , I start with:

Date, Time, Location, (Type of ) Conflict # _____ Dick needs to convince Jane to do something.

Date, Time, Location, (Type of) Cone.flict # _____ Jane is caught snooping around Dick's office.

For me, scenes are visual. I see the characters moving around the room or characters talking to one another. My first draft consists of dialogue and choreography with a tiny of hint of description. It looks a bit like a screenplay. 

Dick (insert tag) “ ....”

Jane (insert tag) “...”

Dick enters (describe how Jane sees him)

(insert description of place here) (look at photo of room)

(Need a visceral response here) (angry) (sad) (hopeful)

(Need gesture)

(insert name of place here) (look at map/diagram and fill in)

They move around the space, they fight, they do stuff.  Then comes the hard work. Once I have a draft, I make sure the scenes illustrate cause and effect.

Because this conversation occurred, it set up a conflict in Chapter __.

Because this conflict occurred, it made this conversation necessary in Chapter __.

If I can take any of the scenes out without making a difference to the plot, they aren't earning page time. I either strengthen them or cut them.

The revision layers take a lot longer than the draft, but are far more effective because I can focus on one layer at a time.

1) Motive: At the end of the scene I ask myself, "Why are my characters behaving this way?Is this behavior true to his or her temperament?

I find it easier to write with the character profiles nearby, so I can refresh my memory about their motivations and purpose. (Blatant plug - having the Build A Cast Workbook by my side is invaluable).

2) Descriptions: I use photos, diagrams, and other prompts to set the scene, add atmosphere, and describe people and places.

3) Dialogue tags and gestures: I have lists of visceral responses and gestures and cross each of them off when I've used them once or twice. I choose a speech pattern and verbal tics for my characters. I make sure their dialogue is consistent throughout by scrolling through the manuscript one character at a time, stopping when I reach their verbal interactions and checking for consistency.

4) Sentence structure: The first draft has simple sentences. When revising, I vary the sentence length and add cumulative sentences. I make sure my nouns and verbs agree and my punctuation is where it needs to be.

5) Hooks: I add creative first and last lines for each chapter. I try to get the goal of the scene in at the beginning and the new goal in at the end.

6) Theme: I make sure actions and dialogue address theme.

7) Adjectives, adverbs, and other parts of speech: I consult lists and cross them off when I use them.

A bare bones draft gives you the opportunity to get the key ingredients right before you add the magic that makes the scene rise from the page and dance.

First drafts always need work. Why waste a lot of time on something you will rewrite anyway? Give the bares bones approach a try. It might keep you from rewriting sentences over and over instead of moving onto the next scene or chapter.

Jumping the Sharknado

How far can you stretch credibility before you lose an audience? Apparently, quite far.

In case you missed it, a recent made for TV movie Sharknado was about a tornado that picked up sharks, allowing them to leave the ocean to seek revenge against the humans killing them. I didn't watch it, but the premise alone is full of lapses in logistics, cause and effect plot holes, and overlooked laws of physics. But ...

People tuned in (mostly to laugh at it). However, someone invested money to make it.

In the television series House, British Actor Hugh Laurie, whom I adore, played a curmudgeonly doctor. He had a Vicodin habit and snarled at his patients with lines I'm certain every doctor wishes they could utter. In real life, that doctor would have lost his licence over the Vicodin alone. As for his approach to patients, if he had any, he would also be sued into oblivion.

In addition to this stretch of the imagination, House's team of physicians not only did their own lab work and pathology, which had my husband and myself rolling on the floor with laughter, they actually broke into the suspect's, I mean patient's, home to investigate. Yet, this series lasted multiple seasons.

The television series Body of Proof, Dana Delany played a former neurosurgeon turned (miraculously and without a fellowship or training) into a forensic pathologist. Her cohort was a female medical examiner. They not only performed autopsies, they interviewed suspects, investigated, and solved cases. Since my husband performed forensic autopsies for twenty-five years and never once interviewed a suspect, it was really hard for him to overlook this ridiculous conceit. However, we did enjoy the three seasons because the characters were fun.

Fiction often demands that the audience suspend disbelief. Audiences are willing to accept that there are vampires, witches, aliens, and killer sharks with superhuman power in the name of entertainment. If the audience accepts this one made-up rule, the rest of the story should flow logically and organically from it.

To sum it up, can you "jump the sharknado?" It would seem so, as long as you make the rest of your story strong enough to overcome the big fish tale you ask your audience to swallow.

Perils of the Paranormal

I experienced two different stories recently that bugged the crap out of me. Why? They start with a story world where the paranormal was not recognized or admitted to, much less an integral part of the world.

Then a character is confronted with paranormal phenomenon and immediately embraces the paranormal explanation instead of being confused, intolerant of the idea, or terrified.

In the normal world, unless a character firmly believes in the paranormal to begin with, it would take repeated exposure to the phenomenon to convince them it was real. They would assume it was a hoax or search for a rational explanation. They accept the irrational explanation only after all other logical options have been dismissed.

To avoid this plot hole, ask the following questions.

1) Is the paranormal entity or magic status quo in your story world?

If so, make this clear in Chapter One. Don’t wait until a turning point to pull it out of the hat or at the climax to solve the story problem.

If not, then show some resistance to the idea.

2) How did it start? What was the point of origin?

Everything starts somewhere. Yes, you have to make this up. Once the “big lie” has been accepted, the logic has to track from there. If A is true, then B would follow, and so on.

3) How did it spread? 

More hard work. You have to create the history of your story world. Who was “patient zero?” What was the mode of transmission? Was it viral or carried down through specific bloodlines? Did several people develop their similar or dissimilar traits all at once? Why? How?

4) How does it manifest itself in the world?

You need to work out the rules. How does it work? What are its limits? What can it do? What are its weaknesses? What makes it difficult to defeat?

5) Who knows about it?

Is this the first encounter/episode or is there a history to draw from? If there is a history, then where, when, how, and why?

If there is a secret seething underworld, how does it remain hidden? If only a few people know about it, how did they find out? What kept them from sharing the secret? If this is news to your protagonist, you have to show him struggling to accept it, at least through turning point one.

Cue your reader in. Don’t leave them clueless.