1. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    How specific should you be when building a character?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by CH878, Dec 24, 2011.

    Do you think you should be very specific when building a character, by which I mean should you, for example, tell the reader exactly what sort of car he/she drives or exactly what sort of watch he/she wears? My thinking is, that to those in the know these kind of details can say a huge amount about the character, the author can use the make of car the character drives as a metaphor for the character in many ways.

    The problem is, when you get that specific, the likelihood is that only a small percentage of the readers will be able to infer the meaning and so you could say it's a waste to put it in.

    Anyone have any thoughts on this?
     
  2. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with the 'small group theory'. Saying a character drives a sports car could indicate something about that character that most people could infer - saying s/he drove a specific make and model (without mentioning it's actually a sports car) could leave a great many people wondering - or just skipping over it.
     
  3. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    I tend to concentrate on their personalities..I am not so good at presenting their looks..
    I would usually link what they do/eat/dress/drive/say to their personalities..so it all kind fits in as I go along developing their personalities.
    In other words the objetcs/things surrounding them only accentuate their personalities and not the other way around.
     
  4. CH878
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    CH878 Active Member

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    I agree with this, but how specific would you be about what they eat/wear/drive? Would you go so far that you risk excluding some of the readers because they aren't familiar with some of the aspects?
     
  5. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd say go for it anyway. The ones who doesn't know what it is will find it out, or they will just skip it and keep reading. The worst that can happen is that they don't get it while there are a lot more advantages with being specific if you want to give a certain impression / effect. Plus you sound like a writer who has made his research and not just simplified by saying "a sports car", to me that sounds like a lazy writer, but maybe that is just me... :rolleyes: Or if you say "sports car", then picture it a little better, "...that looked just like a..." or "...that kind of car that..." and explaining it with the eyes of an amateur, to give a more vivid picture of it.
     
  6. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    It depends on from whose perspective you're describing the character. If both me and my Dad met a guy with a 50's car, my Dad could describe the make and model and year of the car while I'd just say 'he drove a classic car'. It tells you something about the narrator to see how specific they are about different details. (I read a story recently where the protagonist was a mechanic - part of the flavour that made her profession believable was how she always described cars in specific terms.)

    If it's their own perspective, then it depends how much that thing matters to them. What brand of pants I wear won't tell you much about me besides what textures I can tolerate against my butt, so if I was writing from my own perspective I'd talk about 'soft black leggings' instead of 'Calvin Klein' (or whatever, that's pretty much the only clothing brand name that comes to mind for me). But a fashion conscious character would say what brands they're wearing. Also, what you use to describe something will depend on why it's important - their father's watch which has sentimental value probably won't be referred to by brand name, it'll be called their father's watch. Maybe they'd describe it in terms reflecting what a child would've noticed about the watch, because it's linked to childhood memories.
     
  7. AnonyMouse
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    AnonyMouse Contributing Member Contributor

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    This.

    The amazing thing about reading is its ability to teach new things. You could mention a make and model of car that doesn't even exist in the real world. If it's written well, readers will get it. If you pepper it with enough context clues your readers will be able to undertand what it is, what it represents, and what it says about the person driving it. I wouldn't go so far as to say those who take the minimalist approach are lazy, but I do feel they are missing out on an opportunity to add flavor to their characters and worlds.

    And, as Ettina pointed out above, it gives you an opportunity to develop your narrator, especially in first person POV. Detective stories are notorious for this. Some may go a little overboard with brands and such, but that's hardly a reason to avoid doing it altogether.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think you have to be careful of these things. If you say your character drives a Jaguar XK-E, that may be really cool to you, but your reader might think it's a ridiculous car for someone in 2011 to drive. The image may mean something very different to you than it means for your readers. A character wearing a Rolex watch may seem classy to you, but hopelessly extravagant and vain to your reader.

    This is, actually, one of the reasons I like to write alternate history stories. I don't have to explain what "cars" or "watches" my characters use; I get to invent them, and by doing so, I get to infuse them with any amount of coolness or dullness I want.
     
  9. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't call an author who uses "sports car" lazy either - I know how to research, but I have tried to figure out many, many times what is considered a 'cool car' for a given time period and it's impossible, mainly because it's subjective and many times gets into a lot of mechanical parlance which only a mechanic would understand.

    Frankly, one clue to the character's personality just isn't worth it. One can describe, in general, several things the characters owns or uses or prefers and that, in toto, can give the same impression. And there are many other ways of giving that same impression.
     
  10. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't care if someone thinks the car I mention is cool or not, it's my story and the readers doesn't have to agree with me in everything. I think most of them would agree that we all have different taste in what lable are good and bad, and I don't think anyone would put a book down because they think the car I claim is hot is actually not cool at all. i give my readers enough credit to understand that it's cool to my character. isn't that a lot what happens in writing? You give a picture of the scenes as you see it, and there will always be people that thinks that awesome scenery you've pictured doesn't sound that fab, or the girl you described as beautiful seem pretty bland. I don't think that is enough of a reason to stop describing things, the readers doesn't have to agree with you. when i read a book I think it's nice to see something from somebody elses perspective than mine.
     
  11. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    I'd say describe details if they matter or tell the reader something about the character, but avoid going overboard just to show off your own knowledge, or indulge your own personal interests. Every description has to serve the story in some way, so it might be enough to say he drives a red sports car to start with, then maybe if the car itself plays a bigger role in the plot you could gradually bring out more details. For instance, he might give another character a ride and they notice it's brand new/classic/top of the line/customised/pristine leather interior/racing spoiler etc etc etc. But just reeling of a list of specs right at the start probably won't be that interesting to the reader, and they may either skip it or instantly forget it if it doesn't serve an immediate purpose or fit into the context of the plot.

    Just my two cents
     
  12. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    I only describe what's relevant.
     
  13. naturemage
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    naturemage Active Member

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    I read a book not long ago that gave me very good advice. It said that if you mention something in the story, it should be relevant to the story. That "every word should be relevant to the story." So, I would say mentioning the kind of car the person is driving shouldn't really be mentioned unless it has relevance to the story. So, if the car will be used to impress a girl, or race, or something like that, then it would be appropriate to mention it. Otherwise, it might not be worth the time.
     
  14. Cacian
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    Cacian Banned

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    I am not really at describing objects but I am into describing their personalities for the better.
    I am not too worried about the specifics of what they eat/dress/drive and look like because I write more 'conceptually' then objectively.
    I am more into how theyt think/what makes themtick in a good way/how they express themsleves..the rest is secondary because I want to focus on what happens in the story andhow my characters interact between each other and themselves.
     
  15. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    I disagree. If you only mention details that are relevant, your readers will pick up on this and immediately know that this random comment about mud on the guy's pant legs is plot-important, and it'll give away large chunks of plot. Whereas if you have throwaway mentions of irrelevant stuff as well, then your plot twists will remain a surprise. Plus, you can add more flavour to your world, give a sense that there's more to that place than just what impacts the main characters.

    A really good example of an author who does this well is J K Rowling. At one point in Harry Potter, Ron Weasley's father is in wizard hospital and they're visiting him. While waiting in line, and while wandering through the hospital, there's mention of a bunch of different people who at the hospital for various reasons. Only one of those people is plot-relevant. The others include several that just add flavour, one follow-up on a character from a previous book, and one that does a bit of mostly irrelevant character building for a friend of Harry's. The important thing is that because she has all these cute little details that aren't important to the plot, the one detail that is doesn't seem plot-important to the reader until Harry figures out its' significance.
     

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