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5 Tips for Defining Characters

In addition to describing a character's phyical appearance, the words you use to describe the character reveal a lot about how he or she feels about herself and others.

1. A situation can cause Dick to view Sally in a different light. He might have a negative opinion of her at first and change his mind later. You can illustrate the shift in Dick’s opinion of Sally through description.

First impression: The chick stalked into the conference room, wearing a tight gray dress that crackled like stiff paper. Her pale hair was cinched in a tight bun that made her skin look too tight. She met his glance with cold, dark eyes and a clenched jaw. Dick straightened in his chair and ran a finger inside his collar. This witch would not be an easy sell.

Final impressionSally slipped into the conference room. Her navy dress was wrinkled after having spent the night balled up on his bedroom floor. A few of her whiskey-colored curls escaped a hastily gathered knot. Her smile flickered then faded. Dick squirmed in his chair and ran a finger inside his collar. The memory of all that hair spread out across his body left him flushed and shaky. He shuffled the papers in front of him. Sally had yet to sign on the dotted line, the tantalizing witch.

2. Personality clashes may cause Dick to view Sally in a negative light, even if she is runway model gorgeous. If Dick and Sally have a turbulent history, Dick thinks Sally's designer dress and shoes are an affectation rather than a turn on. These moments create tension.

3. Looks and personality are not synonymous. A character may not have symmetrical features or a svelte waistline, but she is lovely to know and a joy to be around. Her good nature makes her attractive to the viewer. A well-manicured, stately matron may have gutter sensibilities and a lewd sense of humor. Stereotypes are boring. Shake it up. I, for one, am tired of the perfect hero with sculpted abs and the tall, stacked heroine in four-inch heels.

4. Characters project a false self to protect their inner child. An insecure person might make sure every hair is in place. A secure person might not care how she looks.

If Dick's socks don't match because he accidentally pulled a blue and a black sock out of the laundry basket, how secure he is determines whether he delivers a blistering counter-attack when Sally points it out or bursts into genuine laughter over the error. Make sure your characters are multi-dimensional.

5. Look for instances where your point of view character analyzes another character. How does he feel and react when that person is around? Is there a dichotomy between his reaction and how he should feel? Dissonance creates tension.

For more information on character building, check out:

Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in e-book and paperback.

Story Building Blocks: Build a Cast Workbook in e-book and paperback.

Character Descriptions

Creative character descriptions are hard to master.

There are long debates about how much character description is enough and how much is too much. Some readers want to know hair and eye color, height and weight, etc. Some want to fill in their own details.

Not enough detail and you have talking heads. 

Too much detail and you turn some readers off.

The choice is yours. Write what you enjoy reading.

Either way, you have to define your character in a way that makes the reader care what happens to him.

An important consideration when describing characters is the viewpoint lens filtering the information. Self-description is tricky and often results in narrator intrusion.

1. Dick can compare and contrast himself to someone else.

He was five-six maybe five seven, coming up to my shoulder. His hair was buzzed like mine, which used to indicate military but had become a recent fad. He could be bulked up from training like me or a gym membership. It was hard to tell these days. 

2. Someone can insult or praise Dick's appearance.

“Your nose looks like you head-butted a rhino, your big brown eyes are bloodshot, and that dimple doesn’t make up for the weakness of your chin.”

3. The three-item list is a little on-the-nose, but employed often.

Dick was a thirty-five-year-old with a pot belly and no hair.

If this is in Dick's POV, it is narrator intrusion. Dick would not talk about himself that way. But a secondary POV character could describe him:

Dick turned out to be a thirty-five year-old with a pot belly and no hair. His wide blue eyes and plump lips completed the resemblence to a man-sized toddler.

4. A unique voice makes descriptions pop.

He had the kind of face that would render him boyish well into old age: round blue eyes, fair wavy hair, freckled nose, and baby smooth skin, the kind of face that would age quickly overnight, as if a witch's spell had broken. The transition would be quick and painful.

5. Mirror gazing is considered cliché, but character self-description is done.

Rather than a list, add a little attitude.

Christ, I was getting old. My hair had more gray than brown and was receding faster than the ocean at low tide. The bags and sags on my face made it harder to shave. My eyebrows had taken on a life of their own. The guy in the mirror wasn't me. It was some old fart sitting in a park feeding pigeons.

6. Avoid narrator intrusion.

 The following descriptions are narrator intrusion in anything other than omniscient POV.

1. Dick's blue eyes lit up when he saw Sally.

Sally could see his blue eyes light up. An omniscient narrator could say it. A first or third person narrator would not.

2. Dick stared at his handsome reflection in the dresser mirror. His eyes were blue. His nose was crooked. His chin was dimpled.

This is you, the author, telling us what Dick looked like.

7. Sense of character trumps details.

You need to give your reader a firm idea of who they are dealing with more so than the color of his eyes, especially when you choose the vague description technique.

Is Dick harsh and judgmental, sweet and lazy, or coarse and fun-loving? The reader fills in whether she thinks that person is corpulent or thin, attractive or not, based on the way the character presents himself.

It creates dissonance when a character's physical description counters what the reader feels about him. This can be done accidentally or on purpose.

8. Make your characters authentic from the ground up.

As outlined in Story Building Blocks II and Story Building Blocks Build A Cast Workbook, it is useful to assign each main character a personality type. The traits propel them and affect the way other people see them. Temperament types are universal, but you can warp and shape them in hundreds of ways. This may sound like too much work, but it is well worth it to do the research. Personality types react to each other in different ways and your readers will not be the same temperament type.

The majority of writers employ pedestrian descriptions; those who master the craft are unforgettable.

Related Posts on Character Description:

Subliminal Messages in Romance

I received the following email from a post on the BRP blog about five romantic memes that need to die.  I will provide a link at the end of this post.

“Dear Ms. Hurwitz, Thanks so much for your 2/4/15 post on the Blood Red Pencil. My genre is contemporary romance and while I’ve tried to avoid the 5 syndromes that you’ve listed below, I’m jealous. For some authors those exact syndromes actually worked. And have brought major successes. My question, why do they work for some authors and not for others? Trying not to whine, B."

This is a rather long response, but I feel it is an important one.

I fear they work because there is a severe amount of dysfunction in our society. To whit:

Reality TV is a constant barrage of people behaving badly for ratings. Indiscretion, infidelity, financial excess, drunken brawls, verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and mounting body counts are daily sources of entertainment. There should be a line feed at the bottom of the broadcast with a warning: “If this resembles your reality, you can get help, please call…” followed by telephone numbers for domestic abuse and mental health hotlines.

A young girl posted a video that went insanely viral in which she stated that if your boyfriend beat you, it meant he loved you … because he invested all that energy in beating you and you should take that as a compliment and sign of affection.

College students are passing around passed out co-eds like blow-up dolls.

Domestic violence is at an all-time high, and women and children aren’t the only victims.

Hazing at the high school sports level has devolved into sexual assault with athletes literally getting “reamed” in locker rooms and school buses.

In the entertainment industry at large, and the romance genre in specific, there are too many stories that perpetuate the idea that you can fix that bad boy by being so amazing he immediately reforms in the blink of an eye with no professional help. All that matters is that they have a hefty bank account and six-pack abs or a title. These rogues are guilty of kidnapping, degrading language, physical manhandling, murder, and rape, but all is forgiven because they fall in love and his actions were “justified” at the time or the girl can be equally "bad ass."

Everyone who reads a murder mystery does not go out and kill someone. And everyone who reads a dysfunctional romance novel won’t go out and accept abusive behavior in their real life. But a steady diet of subliminal messages combined with a vulnerable population is a toxic cocktail.

Teens and young adults can be very suggestable. If you don’t believe that, you haven’t kept up with insanity inspiring pop culture amplified by an internet world full of cyberbullying, trolls, and provocative “selfies.” The high school and young adult phases are a time when many girls and boys are trying out new identities. They are easily influenced by their peers and the world around them. They adopt affectations. They are beguiled by the exotic and new. Joseph Campbell called it the knock, knock and twinkle, twinkle phase. Self-esteem can be shaky. More young women read books (especially romances) than young men, but both are affected by the entertainment industry and the culture they live in.

I believe we need healthy role models in all mediums of storytelling because our narratives influence the collective consciousness. We owe it to vulnerable teens and young adults. If bad boy heroes get a wink and a nudge for their “nefarious ways,” they make poor role models for our sons. Making female protagonists equally nefarious isn’t helping the situation. If our cultural expectation is that men are bestial as a baseline and must be tamed by the right woman, it is tacit support for unacceptable, even criminal, behavior.

In past decades, too many stories modeled women as helpless, compliant sex kittens fixated on finding the right guy. Women only went to college for a "Mrs. degree." 

Grooming kids for the mating game has trickled down to the grade school level. A six year old should not be concerned about being “sexy.”

Women from the baby boomer generation experienced a shift in cultural focus from finding the right guy and becoming wives and mothers, to focusing on self before making those choices and having the right to dictate the terms of those choices. 
 And we are ferociously fighting to hold onto our rights.

Millions of women worldwide are still subject to human trafficking, child brides, and arranged marriages. Women are still considered property of men. They are denied education and independence. They are raped, stoned, whipped, burned, and disfigured. 

That is the “reality" many people read to escape from.

We need to teach our young people that their prime directive is to become self-sufficient, stable, centered people with intact boundaries before they consider having relationships. 

Select schools have offered special classes for girls on how to recognize abusive relationships and protect themselves from rape (finally!), but no classes for boys on how to recognize abusive relationships and what constitutes rape, or any topic for that matter. It reminds me of when we were sequestered to view the films about our lady parts and monthly curse.

I wish my generation had access to Robin McGraw's Aspire initiative. Educating everyone about healthy relationships is crucial to changing the tide.

So, what does all that have to do with writing romance novels?

You can write a truly gripping romance without having severely dysfunctional/damaged characters. Mild dysfunction can create plenty of problems. You have to write realistic tension: obstacles that could potentially make or break their relationship. You have to convince your reader that the outcome is in doubt, even though in the romance genre there is always a happy resolution.

While many obstacles to love have been removed in cultures where people can randomly bed hop all they like, obstacles still exist in different personality types (wants, core needs, personal currency, motivation, ability to coexist amicably), misunderstanding, lies, secrets, betrayals, different backgrounds, socioeconomic factors, religions, ethnicity, strong opposition from other people in their lives, work, etc. As long as you make those obstacles believable, and ultimately realistically resolvable, you have the tension necessary to drive a love story.

In my opinion, the subliminal messages of your story matter. It is just as easy to model and inspire health while still addressing reality.

Thank you for your letter.