1. john murphy
    Offline

    john murphy Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2011
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    0

    Character Description Dilemma

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by john murphy, Jan 23, 2013.

    Do you have any tricks you use to quickly create a memorable impression when describing lots of characters?

    I'm having a challenge in cementing characteristics to make the several people immediatley memorable. I'd hate to resort to, "Jeff was tall and skinny, with dark hair", and "Jeff ran his lanky fingers through his short, dark hair." If I only had a couple characters, I could trade off, or use the action sentence technique to create a fuller picture of Jeff. Easy-peasy. However, I have twelve military recruits that I'm introducing within the scope of a 30 page chapter.

    One is the main character and we've known him since the beginning.

    I try to introduce the others in smaller sections, such as, "Tyla's strawberry blonde hair reached down to her uniform collar." and "Amelia slinked like a cat and struck an informal pose next to the commander, hips canted to the side."

    In another section, I have the main character interact with three others, each with characteristic mentions as above. Then another section, I do some more characters.

    My dilemma is that using this sort of technique allows me to only give one stroke of description for each character at a time, AND only when the natural flow of the interactions permit. For example, I describe Carmen as twisting her long brown hair into a bun, she shakes another's hand firmly, and says a few things about sports. These are such small brush strokes that I'm concerned that the reader A) won't get a good picture of Carmen being a jock, nice looking, medium build, assertive, possessed, etc. B) won't remember anything concrete about Carmen from such a fleeting and subtle action.

    Were it only a few characters, I could work in more characterizations to firmly establish an image of each player in the reader
    s mind. But I've got a whole bunch. I'm doing my best to reiterate some characterizations, but don't want to say, "his red hair" more than once, maybe twice.

    Any techniques you use to quickly establish a memorable image when introducing multiple characters?
     
  2. SilverWolf0101
    Offline

    SilverWolf0101 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jun 3, 2009
    Messages:
    333
    Likes Received:
    8
    Location:
    New York State
    You might want to consider other ways of exposing their looks to us, and not just by simple, notable qualities. Use the other characters around them, use the words they say, the movements they make, their whole manner of acting to describe to us what and who they are. An example, that I used in my story is something like this:
    "She moved with a lethal grace that could easily surpass her wild cousins. She stood poised, a growl rumbling deep down in her chest bone. She was ready."
    I admit it's not the best example in the world, but I found that it portrayed a lot of information about my character that I would have had to spend forever on just trying to find a way to get them in without being overly descriptive. I've had a few people tell me that when reading these few lines, they could envision my character as she was, with other hints from other parts of the story adding to it. I guess by the time the story reached an end, they had a full view of who the character was and what she looked like while leaving enough room for the imagination to work. I honestly don't know how well I've accomplished this, but it is something to consider.
     
  3. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Make your characters memorable through their speech and their actions.
     
  4. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,969
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    Just to provide my opinion, I greatly prefer honest flat-out description:

    Jeff was tall and skinny, with dark hair.

    to "subtle" description that makes itself obvious by its effort to hide:

    Jeff ran his lanky fingers through his short, dark hair.

    I think that if you're going to describe, just describe. My first thought is to find an excuse for the description, such as making the author's problem the character's problem, as in:

    I struggled to match names to faces. Young military recruits tend to look alike to me, with all those clean-cut heads and open scrubbed faces. Sometimes I pretend I'm a casting director, as a memory aid. The kid who led me in, Jeff, with his long fingers, dark hair, and pale face, could be the villain of the piece, an evil professor, if he were just a little older. The one called Amelia was the plain brunette that would suddenly turn gorgeous with one shake of her hair--you know, the beautiful librarian type. Carmen was the self-possessed tough tomboy. The blond frat-boy who held his M-16 so protectively...

    "Sir? SIR?"

    I blinked. "Sorry, Lieutenant. You were saying?"
     
    1 person likes this.
  5. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    I Believe Cogito is right, again. Make them memorable through speech and action. It's what characters do that make them important, and if you are introducing 12 soldiers a reader like me is not going to care what each of them look like, especially for traits as average as height and hair. Height may be more of a factor because it affects how each character operates, but otherwise, most readers just fill in the image of a character no matter how you describe him or her. Make a character that your readers will attach a face too, even if it isn't the one you described.

    As an Example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowlings introduces Mad-eye Moody and tries to describe him missing a chunk of his nose and having a wooden leg, and an eye that went kiiiiinda crazy at times. As the reader, that is the most I would remember, the rest is more of an ambiguous idea of this guy, which is fine. I didn't actually get an image for him until the movie, now it is solidified. If it weren't for the movie I might have forgotten he lost a leg, and I always forget he is supposed to have a chunk missing from his nose :p
     
  6. Andrae Smith
    Offline

    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 22, 2012
    Messages:
    2,506
    Likes Received:
    1,404
    Location:
    Wandering
    @ChickenFreak, I won't lie, that was a great little piece!
     
  7. Selbbin
    Online

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2012
    Messages:
    3,238
    Likes Received:
    1,806
    Location:
    Australia
    I had to do the same thing for a similar story, and went for a very basic description in their intro and then built the rest of the character through dialogue and small moments of description. The basic form was all I really needed for the soldiers, as hair etc are all the same and the rest is up to the reader.

    Bennett, a barbarian with muscles that even God would envy...
    ...covered in a thin white sheet, the sleek lines of her body were all too obvious
    The smaller of the two, Raynor, peeled away Daniels' top, revealing a large set of breasts on a fit, toned body. Her skin was peppered with small moles and large battle scars.
    ...glanced up to see a short and stocky tank of a soldier striding towards him, wearing full battle fatigues.
    They lined up for inspection by an awaiting Sergeant Fielding: a tall, grey-haired, battle-hardened brute in his mid-forties.
    Their tough, calloused hands slapped together and shook firmly.

    And so on and so forth
     
  8. tcol4417
    Offline

    tcol4417 Member

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2009
    Messages:
    31
    Likes Received:
    16
    Location:
    Sydney, AU
    Try not to obsess over physical characteristics when writing. As mentioned by Cog, characters are remembered for... well, their character.

    When you say someone has character, you're not talking about their physical appearance. Frankly, I find it frustrating when too much effort is spent describing physical details of little significance.

    Tywin Lannister may have a shaved head and short grey whiskers with flecks of gold, but it's his mind that makes him unique.
     
  9. Selbbin
    Online

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2012
    Messages:
    3,238
    Likes Received:
    1,806
    Location:
    Australia
    Someone's physical appearance and how they dress can play a role in our perception and understanding of their character. Not only that, but how we remember or identify them in a story (certainly not in isolation). We don't just judge people by what they say; especially if they don't say anything! We, in our own lives, express our character by our fashion, our hairstyles, and our grooming--even if we don't do it on purpose. How a person appears says a lot about their character. An obese white man in a leotard is not likely a Jamaican 100 meter sprinter and certainly isn't looking after himself. A skinny girl with dreadlocks and bare feet wearing a hypercolour t-shirt that says 'PETA FOREVER' is not likely a member of the Hell's Angels and is probably idealistic, a vegetarian, and a free-thinker with a spiritual leaning. An older, grey-haired man in a smart Versace suit with a silk pocket hankerchief, carrying a velum lined briefcase filled with contracts is, well, you decide.

    Don't go overboard, certainly, but Tywin Lannister with a shaved head and short grey whiskers with flecks of gold speaks volumes about his personality without him even uttering a word.

    I've seen too many manuscripts with almost nothing but dialogue. They're a horror to read and, in the end, their characters are still half baked.
     
  10. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Appearance can help shape the reader's perception of a character - that is very true. But it isn't worth farfetched contortions to deliver that picture to the reader. That's the mistake too many writers, especially new ones, make. They stretch the story, and all credibility, bringing the character to a reflective surface or a photograph just to present an achingly contrived physical description.

    Now if your character is a cop or an investigator, it's quite natural for them to take note of details of appearance of someone they have just met, and to form an impression based on that perusal. But most other POV characters will not be that observant. Even a man drooling over a sexy young thang will only notice certain details, and those details won't be her handbag or her Versace shoes. Chances are, he won't even notice her eye color.

    The point is not whether a physical description helps the reader form a first impression. It's whether it's the best way, or even worth some effort to provide it.

    Never let it get in the way of telling the story.
     
  11. wavodavo
    Offline

    wavodavo Member

    Joined:
    Sep 14, 2010
    Messages:
    54
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Washington State, USA
    John Murphy, soldiers are notorious for affixing nicknames to each other. You yourself might be "Murf" and then "Smurf" if you were small in stature. If it turns out you're also nervous under fire you might get reduced to "Smurfette". Soldiers will also name each other for some salient physical characteristic: "Fatso", "Pickles", "Gimpy", "Lurch", Short Round", "Pukey Lukey".

    So, consider giving some nicknames or have readers overhear nicknames. And, of course, since you seem to be stuck with a menagerie of characters, you might be forced time to time to remind the reader which is which: Barfy, our only man from Tennesee, rushed in..."
     
  12. Selbbin
    Online

    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 16, 2012
    Messages:
    3,238
    Likes Received:
    1,806
    Location:
    Australia
    Absolutely, but it's important for people not to neglect it with the mistaken idea that description is irrelevant. It's not always worth the effort. It depends what it tells us. The first impression, like in real life, is only an introduction to learn more about them through speech and action, as you said.
     
  13. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,724
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Of course, you should definitely let a character's actions and words define them. But the impression they make on other characters counts, too, as do what other characters say about them. You might try using more colorful imagery when describing them. For example, your tall and skinny Jeff might be described like this:

    Harry laughed. "Did you see that guy Jeff? Built like a hatrack!"
    "I think he has beautiful hands, though. Like a pianist's hands."

    Now we know a little more about Jeff, but also about Harry and the other speaker (perhaps her name is Jennifer). Harry ridicules Jeff, but Jennifer has a more positive opinion. And this is done with a good degree of economy.
     
  14. Atargatis
    Offline

    Atargatis New Member

    Joined:
    Jan 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    England
    What makes us unique?

    The problem you are having is not an uncommon one to me, when introducing lots of characters in such a short space, especially when they are supposed to each make up part of a unit (e.g in the military) I always try to have a few characters that are fairly boring but i use things like signature colors of clothing, tattoos, catch phrases, birthmarks/ scars, to separate them. Besides things such as scars and tattoos can allow for back stories about that characters life to be told. You may also consider giving a particular character a very memorable reaction in response to other characters or events, sometimes the best way to imprint a character in the mind of a reader is by their reaction to another character.
    Hope this helps xx
     
  15. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,829
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    I try to get my characters to play off each other. That allows for their true colors to shine through.
    Be careful putting them in a movie-mode line up. Once you stagnate them, they're reduced to image.
    Image is all very well and fine, but beauty or lack there of doesn't tell you who a character is - especially
    if all your characters are in uniform.
    Make a scene in which it will take hardly any effort to describe them - a bar scene, or a rising to
    start the day in the barracks. Interaction will show your readers more about the character than
    telling them so-and-so looks like a tomboy. They'll see she's a tomboy. More important you'll be
    killing two birds with one stone so to speak, by bringing out relationships and conflicts within
    the group.
     

Share This Page