Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Describing Characters

Writers of stories give each other advice all the time on how to write better. You won't have to search very hard to find more than enough blogs to read on the subject of writing, written by writers. Since I am not a writer of fiction, I can't join in that crowd of experienced advisors, but I do read fiction and perhaps some advice from a reader instead of another writer might be an unusual change of pace - not that readers know anything about the finer points of writing, but I do know that I start to read many books and never get past the first couple of chapters, and I do know why I finish the ones I finish. Here are the 10 reasons, in order of importance, that make me finish a book:

1. Story
2. Story
3. Story
4. Story
5. Story
6. Story
7. Story
8. Characters
9. Theme/genre
10. Atmosphere/setting

This is some exaggeration, but my point is that a good story makes me overlook a considerable lack of writing skills, and I seldom remark on how well an author with no story to tell puts together wonderful sentences, or how vividly he describes his characters.

Character development is important (though not number one) and I don't mean to make it seem less important than it is. Sometimes, though, I find some writers get caught up with character development attributes and forget to have the characters DO something. I must admit that I like a good character, and the first step in the character's introduction into the story is his initial description.

Recently, I wrote (copied down, I mean) in this blog, or one of my blogs, the beginning pages of Charles Dickens' description of his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens (as all writers of the classics are) was a master at description. I really enjoyed his first description of Scrooge. It made me want to find other famous characters in famous stories and read how the authors had initially described them when they introduced the characters into their story. I found a few and set them aside until a later day which has now come. Here is one.

"He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield."

Since this is an American author, the above may not be instantly familiar to non-American readers. The earlier one was from Dickens, though, so it is the American author's turn.

The above example is too easy and too obvious, but I am asking anyway.


  1. My first thought is Washington Irving's Ichobod Crane from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." But it's probably been 20 years since I read it.

    About your first comment, let me start by saying, you're not wrong. There are many writers/readers where story is king and everything else falls by the wayside. Just like there are some readers/writers where lyrical description and writing make/break something.

    I read for characters. Writers who focus primarily on characters, who really bring them life, they're my favorite. I'm not wrong either. I just look for something different. I personally think it's terrific that what people love and look for varies so much.

    Do I like a good story? Yeah. A good plot in a story with good characters makes it all better. But, like you, I'll forgive a great deal for characters that touch me.

    And that's probably the thing, from my point, I think you're missing from a characterization standpoint. I never loved/didn't love a character from a writer's description. I often just blow past that anyway. It's the depiction, what the character does, says and reacts that makes a character real to me. Which is also how it all ties to the plot.

    For me.

  2. I agree entirely that the story is the first necessity. I've just finished two books, neither of which had great characters but the story carried them along. To have good character descriptions and/or atmosphere is what makes a decent book great, to my mind.

    The character description you quote, not one known to me, but one that stays in your mind. I have a similar one from Dickens that sets the atmosphere in Bleak House:

    "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights."

    So I'd put atmosphere above style/genre because when it comes down to it, I'll read any type of book. I'd put it on a level footing with character.

    One of the few things I remember from English lessons is that some authors go in for these descriptions and others disperse the same sort of information bit by bit. The descriptions in a chunk made essays and revision much easier. Nice and concise. :)

  3. Stephanie, I know of your love of characters, of course, and this wasn't aimed at that. Gotta have interesting characters or the best story can be lost, admittedly.

    A. - That's a wonderful description! (I love descriptions, whether of characters or atmosphere or anything else.) The details get me.

  4. You are right, of course, Stephanie, about the character. Even the name "Crane" is a play on his skinny ungainliness.

  5. Sigh. I lose like 1 in 5 comments on your blogs, RM. Always the long detailed ones.

    Oh well, I guess it doesn't really matter.

  6. Yes, yes, chucked a couple of books recently, writing good but story garbage.

  7. A good writer conveys description through attitude, actions, and dialog… let the reader connect with the character through emotion and you let them imagine there own description of the character better that words can.
    Key words do a lot in description…. If we chose active, colorful words, are writing will be strong for it, and the reader will visualize the world we want without conscience thought.

    J.K Rowling is a great example of character building; even side characters are full and vibrant in the readers mind.

  8. @Leazwell - Nothing here has changed my mind about story being king and characters serving that king.

    @Jeff King - Good points. But you can't be serious when you use J.K. Rowling as an example of letting the reader flesh out the characters. She describes her characters in such detail that you must simply accept them. She doesn't allow the reader to speculate even if there might be a wart on someone's nose. If there is, she tells you about the wart and describes whether or not it has hairs growing out of it.

    But she is also a good example of having a story to tell. Her characters are delightful bonuses to the marvelous flights of fantasy she weaves.

    Story is still king.

    I say.

  9. RM said "Nothing here has changed my mind about story being king and characters serving that king."

    Why should it? I don't think anyone wanted to change your opinion.

    I certainly didn't.

  10. I think writers who write for their living have only one goal: to induce many people read their writing.

    I don't disagree with you, and this post wasn't meant as a put down to you because you have such a love for characters. Like most of my posts, or many of them, the idea came from other blogs that caught my eye and I felt I needed to add something. Or, in this case, to simplify something that many people were making too complicated.

    I think there may be a formula for a best seller. If, like Jeff, we use J.K. Rowling as a model, then the formula would be Imagination+Descriptive Ability=Financial Success. The imagination to come up with the right premise; the descriptive ability to tell the story, ... and the magic to make a fantasy story come to life through the characters.

  11. Incidentally, you don't lose comments because there is something different about my particular blogspot blog. I hope you realize that, and keep right on trying. I have been copying my longer comments to the clipboard until I make sure they show up. Sometimes I forget to do that an the comment is lost forever.

  12. I am absent-minded and frequently lose my long-winded comments. I meant to save them first, but usually I forget until it's too late.

  13. Fortunately people know how to write that like, for if they didn't the world would be a boring place. :)

  14. @Kell - You write like that, I've always thought.

  15. Your too kind. I believe that less words also have an impact. Something like Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein whom I remember from when I was a child. I dabbled in poetry that was one word at a time once, it was quite a difficult task, and if I could find it, I would share.



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