1. Friedrich Kugelschreiber

    Friedrich Kugelschreiber marshmallow Contributor

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    Help with character description without bogging down

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Friedrich Kugelschreiber, Mar 17, 2019.

    I was unsure how to title this thread, and I don't know if this is the right subforum or not. Please move it if it's wrong.

    So, my book opens with a scene where a bunch of characters are around a table, and I need to provide, throughout the scene, at least a cursory physical description and background for four or five of them. However, I also need to incorporate a single conversation between all of them so that it flows, and describing them elsewhere wouldn't work because they're all massacred immediately afterwards. My question is this: would it be acceptable to simply blow through each character and describe them with a paragraph or so? I recently read a very good book that did this, but my first instinct is that that would be too much and too boring. Or am I just a product of our modern age of convenience and prepackaging with no stomach for lengthy description? I know it's not as cut and dried as I'm making it seem; I just need some advice.
     
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  2. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    If you go with full expository mode then do it with gusto, and take no prisoners. What I hate are halfhearted character descriptions that the writer tries to weave invisibly into the narrative. That approach almost never works. When I describe a character it usually contains a little story that gives the reader something to hold on to. In this case, it's the animal trainer at an opera house, and it turns out that a jealous lover is the one beast that nearly took his life.


    For a middle-aged man, Gael retained a tireless vitality. The man who managed animal acts at an opera house in decline — and at present, with a twelve-year-old girl in tow — resembled a disheveled lion that had an appetite for bourbon and brothels. A deep scar cut across his left cheek, a souvenir he had acquired on one of his travels; whether it was given him by a leopard or bear, one could not be certain, for the details, embellished always with wine, had a habit of changing from one telling to the next. Only the perpetrator herself — a jealous lover, a Negress from one of the southern islands — knew the full truth.
     
  3. Friedrich Kugelschreiber

    Friedrich Kugelschreiber marshmallow Contributor

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    That's good advice. Nice example, by the way.
     
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  4. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Currently Reading::
    "The Netanyahus" by Joshua Cohen
    A strong voice will carry you through.

    John’s almost therapist-like professionalism was ridiculous in a room dominated by a huge plasma-screen TV with four video game systems wired to it. John had his hair pulled back into a neat job-interview ponytail and was wearing a button-up shirt. He could look like a grown-up from time to time. -- "John Dies at the End"
    Kind of a clever paragraph because the setting also obliquely describes him. The reader uses their "male/slacker/gamer" template and then slants it with office attire. The description is strongly in the MC's voice and so it's pulling double duty filling the reader in on the MC's attitudes towards John.

    I love the next paragraph too. More character description through setting. That relies on the reader using templates. (John's obviously a slob and poor too.)

    I walked over to a cushioned chair and scooped out its contents (four worn guitar magazines, a sketch pad, and a leather-bound King James version of the Holy Bible). As I tried to settle in, a leg broke off and the whole chair slumped over at a thirty-degree angle. I leaned over nonchalantly, trying to look like that’s exactly what I had expected to happen.
    I guess what's important is that you don't have to say everything directly. You can set up a stereotype and then adjust its details. John's not even mentioned, but our picture of him is still being set.

    If you're going to describe several people at a time, make the paragraphs do more than just list physical qualities. Don't give each character their own fat paragraph because that sets up a plodding rhythm. Take your time on some characters and then race through others. Superficially describe them ("like Clint Eastwood with a pompadour," and that's all that character gets) and then spend your time maybe flash-backing into something they once did. Then their actions create an image. Anything to break the pattern. In fact, I'd probably choose only one character to detail with a fat paragraph (and hit more than just the visual) and then skim the rest. Let the scene move forward a little and then dump more detail on the second most important person. That's just me though . . . you can make anything work as long as it feels like words in motion and not just a static list.
     
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2019
  5. Fallow

    Fallow Banned

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    What are they doing at the table? The discussion could be about their character and appearance in reference to which should be sent as an emissary or some other role.

    "No, Vlad, we aren't sending a scrawny mumbler with a turkey neck to put the fear of God in them."
    "And you're expecting on overweight teenager in a tracksuit to do it?
    Reece looked up from his massive gold watch, "I'm twenty seven and..."
    "...and look nineteen. You don't even have stubble. Pick someone else," Vlad continued softly, eyeing old Souza.

    Etc. Some of it is in the dialogue, some of the description in the action.
     
  6. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    That's the trick . . . to keep the words moving and as much as possible let the reader string things together. Be lyrical when you need to be, but straight forward at other times. I see it even with well known writers, they get lazy and descriptions are little more than laundry lists. Neil Gaiman has some of the best character descriptions I've ever read, and some of the worst ones too. So it isn't easy, that's for sure. In the passage below I finally found the hook in describing one of the villains in the story. Adeline loves horses, and it's when she notices Mr. Nethercut has shiny riding boots that have probably never seen the business end of a horse that she becomes suspicious of the man from London. Also, I like to be playful in my descriptions, use words that have double meanings. There's a number of ways I could describe Mr. Nethercut's blue eyes, but I chose to use the word gaslight. He is in fact gaslighting the poor girl and has already hatched a plan to kidnap her.


    The gentleman calling himself Gilbert Nethercut was a study in black; from his raven’s feather hair and sable tailcoat, down to his patent leather riding boots, he was every stitch a lustrous shade of night. If not for his waxen pallor, and those eyes, lit gaslight blue, he might move invisibly on a moonless eve. And is it possible his boots haven’t even a clod of mud or scuff on them? Adeline recalled something her governess once said about Englishmen: ‘They’re a tepid breed of men who care little for clever women, and even less about the worries of the world—and on a sunny day wouldn’t give a brass fart for a spirited filly.’ She promised herself she would keep her distance from the foreigner.
     
  7. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    Here's a description in which I use Seven Crown's advice of flash-backing to good effect. Flashbacks should be used sparingly, and always quick in and quick out.

    The second floor was known to every member of the theatre company as, “Hugo’s Palace”. Indeed, the tailor strode his domain with the deliberate gait of a parade horse. There was such an absurd sincerity to his pretentiousness that it made him almost intolerable. Yet underneath the pretense there was another man, one who took in destitute women and trained them to be seamstresses, offering them a refuge from the Quartier Rouge. His first profession had been that of a low ranking officer and field surgeon in the Royal Army, until an ill-advised affair with the second lieutenant’s mistress ended his military ambitions and returned him to the family business. That sewing flesh and fabric required the same prowess was not lost on the actors who were frequently jabbed by his pins.
     
  8. raine_d

    raine_d Active Member

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    My feeling is a paragraph for each - right at the start when we aren't into the story yet - might be too much (and I'm someone who loves description). Maybe try to distill something unique about each one into a short sharp image (in the POV's voice) and then flesh them out a bit more slowly? I mean, even a single word like "hatchet-faced" can start the ball on a vusal image going...
     
  9. Friedrich Kugelschreiber

    Friedrich Kugelschreiber marshmallow Contributor

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    That's what I've been feeling. My big problem is that I don't really have time to flesh them out slowly, but it just occurred to me that if they are going to be massacred, detailed character description isn't necessary, and if it is, I can always work it in later. These forums are so helpful. Thanks everyone! :superyesh:
     
  10. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    That all depends on how invested you want the reader to be in these characters that are marked for death. If you fail to give them life beforehand then their deaths won't be meaningful to the reader. My advice is to reconsider things and give these characters the breath of life so that when they meet their end the reader feels some sense of loss. In my story I have two characters that are destined for the guillotine. Before that chapter comes up they only appear in one other chapter wherein I weave their stories into that of one of my protagonists. Make sure you don't have "throwaway" characters. Even minor characters should leave an indelible mark on the story.
     
  11. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Ideally, you don't want to fully introduce more than one or two characters per scene. That way, the reader forms a stronger "image" of the introduced character(s). I quoted "image" because the introduction shouldn't be merely descriptive. You want the reader to have a broader feel of who the character is, whether it be the one who confidently seizes the spotlight and takes charge, or the quiet one who listens quietly for a while before saying the one sentence that changes everything. Other characters can surely be present, but you'll only leave the reader confused as to who is who if you try to give everyone an equal share of an introductory scene.

    It's like going to a party and getting introduced to half a dozen strangers within the first two minutes. How well will you remember any of them other than the stunning redhead? And will you even remember her name after you roll up your tongue and shove your eyes back into their orbits?
     
  12. XRD_author

    XRD_author Banned

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    E.g.: Audrey was tall and elegant, perfect in an evening gown and equally at home in a jumpsuit. She moved like the princess of all cats, but her smile was as warm and comforting as the spring-time sun. For a moment, Mark regretted falling madly in love with Florence. But Audrey's eyes held a gentle apology, asking him to forgive her for how she made him feel, and the moment passed.
     
  13. Fallow

    Fallow Banned

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    Julie-Anne's measurements are 36-24-37 and she hails from the great state of Oklahoma! Julie-Anne is studying fashion marketing, volunteers with her local 4H chapter and is in favor of worlds peace. Let's give Julie-Anne a big hand as she heads into the evening wear competition with this striking green sequined number by Jordache!
     
  14. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I can't agree with this. Well-populated stories can do a lot. I don't think it gets confusing. It all comes down to presentation. But I don't think fewer characters do anything special or more for a story. If anything it can make things boring, in my opinion.

    To the OP: When it comes to physical descriptions one thing that helps me is to open a blank document and write a few descriptive sentences about each character. Then I see what's useful and what can fit where. I don't use all of it, but it can really help add flavor. Someone gave me this tip a few years ago and it forever changed the way I write. I would give it a try.
     

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