Characters Are Not Webcams

funny-pictures-cat-does-science

Actual photo of me.

Brace yourself. I’m about to drop some serious science on you.

Are you ready?

Okay, I’ll wait.

How about now?

Fuck, put that helmet down, what do you think science is?

All right. Ready now?

Good. Here it is: there are five senses*.

Ground-breaking? Not really. But you’d never know that by reading some books.

Characters in these books look, see, observe, stare, and glance, but they don’t often smell. Or taste. They hear, because dialogue is important, but they don’t feel. Well, except for emotional feels.

Now I get that sight is important, but it’s sure as hell not everything. I’m far more likely to have a visceral reaction to a scent than a sight. The smell of a perfume I used to wear in high school makes me nostalgic; the unique smell of a hospital emergency room–disinfectant, panic-sweat, blood, and stale coffee from the vending machine–makes me tense.

Then there’s sounds: a song you used to love, back when you were a different person; the whine of a plane’s propeller as you left; the slow, wet swish of a mop removing blood from a tile floor.

And let’s not forget the things we touch: the weight of your favourite leather jacket, perfectly worn; the stiffness of new jeans; the coolness of a metal pen as you sign that contract.

Did any of those descriptions make you smile? Did any of them make you uncomfortable? Good. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Without them, the characters might as well be dispassionate webcam observers, seeing and talking but never touching, never smelling, never tasting.

That’s boring as shit, and as writers we can do better.

*At least. The scientific community is divided on whether things like spatial awareness, etc, should be considered separate senses or uses of the five commonly accepted ones. But for this post, let’s just concentrate on the five we all agree on.

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Monday Challenge: One Distinguishing Feature

That guy looks familiar… (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking a lot about my characters this weekend.

Normally, we get weekends off from each other. They retire back to whatever alternate dimension they came from, and I either work on other stuff or take a break from writing. But this weekend…I don’t know. Maybe it was because winter rose from its frost-lined grave to terrorize us one more time, thus reducing the number of runs I could complete.* Maybe it was because I finished the TV show I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. Either way, they were taking up more mental real estate than usual.

I came up with some good stuff, so I wrote out character descriptions for most of the main ones. Not physical descriptions; remember Friday’s post? This was stuff about backgrounds and voices.

But I did make sure to include the one physical characteristic I associate with the bastards, because that’s what makes them them. The rest of their appearance crystallizes around that one thing.

Monday Challenge time: describe your characters using only one physical characteristic. What defines them? What stands out?

And, because I like these as much as you do, here are my entries for the seven main characters I didn’t get to on Friday:

Contestant number one is a woman who has lost a lot of weight. Too much. In the right light, you can see the bones under her skin.
Number two has eyes the faded blue of a desert sky, all wide open plains and endless vistas.
Number three’s hands are large, with blunt, short fingers and scarred palms. You wouldn’t think they’d be capable of the kind of delicate work he’s known for.
Number four is dark: not just skin and hair, but eyes, too. The irises and the pupils blend together, making her look either unearthly or concussed, depending on the context.
Number five is…nothing. Nothing stands out. You would pass him in a crowd and never remember he was there. Which is just how he likes it.
Number six has curly, reddish-gold hair that almost glows in the sunlight. It’s beautiful, and she hates it.
Number seven is a big man, but he moves like a small one: all enthusiasm and quick gestures. It can be unnerving.

That’s mine. Now show me yours.

*I love running, but even I’m not crazy enough to run on solid sheets of ice.

Height, Weight, and Genital Size: How To Write More Effective Character Descriptions

The first thing I noticed was that he had a bat on his underwear… (Photo Credit for this awesome thing: Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr)

Here’s a thing: I usually don’t know what my characters look like until after the zero draft.

Weird, right? A lot of writers and writing guides will get all up into the physical descriptions. I can understand the reasoning: it makes the characters more concrete, gives them a toehold in reality. And I’m definitely not a fan of those stories where the characters are deliberately not described so that the reader can imagine themselves in their place or some bullshit. If you’re slipping inside the skin of one of my characters, bring some disinfectant. And the ingredients for an exorcism.

No, I don’t give much thought to physical descriptions until after the zero draft because I’m too busy finding out who they are to give a damn what they look like.

During that zero draft, there are two things I concentrate on when it comes to characters: personality and voice. Which is really one thing, since how they speak is an extension of who they are.  So the only physical things I put in are the ones that are integral to either who they are or what happens. If a dude is missing an eye, that’s probably going to come up.*

Think of it like running through the story: all I notice is the important stuff. The things that jump out at me. His eyes. The way she smiles. Those hands, long-fingered and slender and fragile. Then later, I’ll go back and add in some of the other details, if I need to.

My general rule is as follows: imagine you have just seen this person across a crowded coffee shop. What is the one detail that jumps out at you? How they dress? A particular hairstyle? A face tattoo? Other details can be dropped in as necessary, but one striking thing should be the dominant feature. After all, after meeting someone for the first time, how many of you remember their exact hair colour? Whether or not they had freckles? What their nails looked like? Chances are that you will notice the thing that is unusual. The arrogant man with the bloody, close-bitten nails. The woman with two different colour eyes. The punk kid with the foot high bright pink mohawk. And if there’s nothing unusual, that’s a characteristic, too.

For example, throughout the entire zero draft, there was really only one detail I knew about one of my main characters: the colour of his eyes. They’re brown, not dark like the earth but a golden-tinged honey brown, all warmth and light. A boy’s eyes in a killer’s face.

And that was all I needed. Stuff like hair colour wasn’t as important because it didn’t tell me anything about that guy. Now, I’m putting in a few of those details, because I’m editing my way towards a complete sensory experience, but they’re still less important than that single detail.

Next time you get the urge to put in everything from exact height to genital size, ask yourself this: if your characters had a single defining physical characteristic, what would it be? And why?

*If only because it’ll be easier for people to sneak up on him.