Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Using 3 Cs to Describe Main Characters

If you write from a single view point, which is what I do, sooner or later you run into a problem: how to describe your main character in a natural way.  I don't know about you, but I don't sit here thinking, oh, I've just crossed my chubby thighs or mentally comment on my short curly hair as I run my fingers (long, with bitten nails) through it.

Even when I do look at myself in the mirror, it's functional - eg I'm brushing my teeth - and how I look is about the last thing on my mind.  I can not think of a single time I've stopped and addressed myself in the mirror with a detailed self portrait, except when it's the morning after the night before and I've caught sight of my blurry features and gone: I look so old, I'm never drinking again.  Which, while half accurate (and you can decide which half), is hardly a helpful thing to convey to a reader how I look.

So, if staring at themselves with a running mental commentary on their looks is out for main characters, how can a writer convey to the reader how the character looks?

Get other characters to comment on your main character.  This is from Kissing Mr Wrong:

Briony rang the number and after a bit someone answered. They exchanged pleasantries about the exhibition, then Briony said, 'I'm after a favour for a friend.  Lu Edwards - I think you met her briefly at the party.  Long hair, a bit hippyish.'  Lu frowned at Briony.  A bit hippyish? Just because she didn't wear black all the time like Briony.

Earlier it's mentioned that Lu is wearing a cheap skirt that she's customised herself with applique roses, which fits in with Briony's hippyish description.  Or this from Adultery for Beginners:

She hesitated at the door, not daring to go in and meet the other parents.  There wasn't a man in sight, she noticed, only mothers, and they all seemed to know each other.  Some were dressed casually, others in suits as if for work.  Isabel felt dressed too brightly, the colours bold and garish in the soft September light.  Without thinking she touched her earrings, bought on one of their Dubai jaunts, bright Bedouin beads strung on gold wires that chinkled softly as she moved.  She made a mental note to wear something beige next time.

The extract from Adultery for Beginners also uses comparisons to give an impression of how Isabel looks. If A thinks, I look thinner/fatter/happier/sleeker/untidier than X, and the reader knows how thin/fat/happy/sleek/untidy X is, they should be able to begin to imagine A.  I think most of us compare ourselves to others in real life, so it seems entirely plausible that characters do it too.  

Whatever method you use, it's best if main character description is drip fed into the story rather than ladling up a great wodge. I like to establish hair colour and length and basic body shape - tall, short, slim, plump etc - early on, along with a little characterisation through clothes. And that's about it.  I think minimal description means the reader can project their own image onto the character and that in turn helps them get involved with my characters.  

That's the theory anyway - and hopefully it works. 


Shauna said...

I loved your comments extract, it made me smile so you can add humour to the work it's doing.

I've found comparisons a useful tool as well, but as you say I think minimal description is good. As a reader I tend to build up my own picture of a character - whatever the author says, though sometimes I've been brought up sharp when they do finally add some description, and its totally different to my own idea.

Philip C James said...

Excellent points, Sarah, especially regarding allowing the reader to use their imagination to transform a sketch into an oil-painting (speaking as no oil-painting, myself).

Guess the only reason to be more descriptive is if you're hoping to sell the film rights and really want to see the protaganist played by Brad Pitt, not Rowan Atkinson...

docstar said...

I never describe my characters unless there's a definite reason to do so (the crux of the story depends on the MC having a blue eye and a green eye, for example). When I read, I'll skip over the author's descriptions because, frankly, I don't care how the author thinks they look - I know how they look. I keep that in mind when writing.

Clair Humphries said...

I'm so glad I found this as I write in first person too. Really helpful tips, thank you!

Karen said...

I always remember being totally amazed when Sophie Kinsella said she deliberately never described Becky Bloomwood in her shopaholic novels, as the reader would imagine her the way they wanted.

She was right - I hadn't even noticed the lack of description, yet was certain I knew what she looked like!

Mind you, I tried the same technique in my first novel and was told by an agent, 'we need a little description of the main character', so I guess you have to really know the rules before you can go ahead and break them :o)

Sarah Duncan said...

Shauna - it's disconcerting when writers do that, isn't it. I once had a lot of discussion with a copy editor over what colour bee-brown was; they saw it as dark brown, I thought it a honeyish mid brown.

Phil - not everyone would find Brad Pitt more attractive than Rowan Atkinson, so a wise author leaves out the specific details to let a reader project.

Docstar - you're right, only give specific physical detail when it's crucial to the plot.

Clair - you're welcome!

Karen - I think you do need a little, but make it generic unless, as docstar says, you have a plot reason for highlighting a particular feature. Hair colour, length/style, height and build are OK, but no much beyond that.