Nobody wants to read about flat, two-dimensional characters. Over this blog, I will discuss the main aspects of great characterisation, and using an example from my novel, Dove, I will give quick, easy steps to ensure your characters will sit up, stretch their arms high, and walk right off the pages of your book.
Let’s begin with description. The description of your character is the first impression a reader will get. Remember, you must make this a good one; you never get a second chance at a first impression.
1. Keep it simple. Don’t overdo it. Allow the reader to contribute to the character. Don’t go into detail about every single aspect of the character’s features, clothes, body shape, hairstyle, etc. The reader will feel cheated they can’t help bring this character to life.
2. Sprinkle it like sugar. Don’t info-dump on the reader. Don’t bombard them with a heavy, long-winded description of the character all in one piled lump of steaming text. Space the necessary details out over a page or two after the character’s first introduction.
3. Be unique and creative. Don’t be boring. Bland description fades into the background of the reader’s mind. You are better off saying nothing than giving the same descriptive details that everyone else gives. ‘He was tall, with brown hair, and brown eyes.’ Yawn. Create descriptions that will remain burned into the reader’s mental retinas.
4. Use other perspectives. The way another character views your protagonist/antagonist will say more about that person than simple narrator description. In the same way, the way your character feels about others will show the reader a snippet of their personality. Read this character description from my novel, Dove, in which a draft-dodger and his girlfriend, Ray, are forced to give up their world, and dreams for the future, and flee to Canada to escape fighting in Vietnam. At the start of this journey they are picked up by a car of three boys, which leads to a conflict of opinion and then a violent attack.
…we peered inside at three frat boys. They all looked alike: sky blue eyes complete with black clouds, shark-white teeth in healthy gums, and chips on their shoulders bigger than their feet. Biceps bulged the sleeves of their blue and yellow letter jackets, similar to those worn at Berkeley. I took a breath against images of green lawns, and student-filled commons, and sorority houses. Images I would never see for myself. Not now. My acceptance letter for California University – which I’d kept beneath my pillow to enhance my dreams – was in a crumpled up ball in my waste paper basket. Right beside Japhy’s crumpled draft notice and my crumpled hopes. It wasn’t fair.
Notice that in this example, I have used a quick, simple description of the frat boys. While this abstract description paints a detailed picture of the three boys, I have left plenty of room for the reader to fill in the gaps. In this section I say only what is the same about these boys, because when you first meet people who look similar, you don’t notice the ways they are different until you are familiar with how they are alike. Once my character has noted their similarities, she will then go into a secondary description of their differences as she gets to know them individually during the next few pages. I have used the comparison to storm clouds and hungry sharks as a hint, giving the reader the feeling that something not-so-nice may be about to befall our protagonist, therefore heightening the tension. And by using the description of the frat boys’ letter jackets, and what this means to my character, the reader gets further insight into my protagonist, and how she feels about everything she has to sacrifice in order to save her boyfriend from the draft.
Please feel free to comment on my tips, or to post examples of your own character descriptions – I would love to meet your three-dimensional, leaping-off-the-page, characters! And please stay tuned for my next blog, How To Create Memorable Characters: Depth.