Thursday, June 21, 2012

How Do You Describe Your Characters?

How do you describe your characters? We're told over and over again that we should never spend paragraphs telling our readers what our characters look like. Yet, how many times have you read a story where the MC, at least, is vividly described: "Her hair was the color of fresh honey with lighter streaks of pure gold. Her beautiful eyes reminded him of pools of liquid amber, surrounded by long, curling lashes, while her sweet lips were red and perfectly heart-shaped." And on and on, ad nauseum.

Then there's the old mirror trick, where the MC stands in front of a mirror, and sees herself... sometimes as she really is, sometimes as she would like to be: She combed through her blonde hair, and spent thirty minutes carefully arranging it so that it would look wind-blown and casually unkempt. She blinked her brilliant blue eyes, moving closer to the mirror to apply layers of mascara to her exceptionally long lashes. Next, she moved slightly away, examining herself minutely as if to prove to herself that her black silk dress fitted her full and natural curves, emphasized her tiny waist, and swirled softly around her graceful legs...etc. etc. etc.

Boring! When I get to a passage like that... although it's often a full page or more...I simply turn the page and  move on to something more interesting...hopefully. Yet I've found that kind of character description in both MG and YA stories, more often in YA, but I'm sure it's enough to turn teens off, too.

To be honest, I recently used "the old mirror trick" in my current WIP. Well, sort of. Here is the way I used it:
The mirror shimmied in front of her, emphasizing the jagged scar on her face. Her torso was fat and mishappened, her dark curls shriveled up, and her legs seemed ten miles long. It was a distortion mirror straight out of the Fun House, and she hated it, but it was the only mirror her mother allowed.

You do get a sense of what she looks like: she is slim, has dark, curly hair, and a  scar on her face. But you also know that she still doesn't look exactly like what the mirror shows, because it is a distorted image. What else does that passage tell you? Doesn't it suggest that her mother is controlling? Doesn't it make you want to ask: WHY is that the only mirror her mother will allow?

There are many ways to describe our characters, without reeling out a litany of their many attributes. Here are a few:

1. Kiley stormed into the classroom, spurs ( which weren't allowed in school) clanking against the tiled floors. He slapped the dust from dirty jeans, slammed his Stetson hat down on the desk, and slid into the seat. His brown eyes glittered, and his hands balled into fists. He was ready.

What does this tell you? Hmm...spurs, dusty jeans, Stetson hat. He's a cowboy or ranch hand, rides a horse, and works ( or his jeans wouldn't be dusty and dirty.) But he's not ordinary 'hand,' because a Stetson 'cowboy' hat is one of the most expensive you can buy ( true statement, remember I was a rancher for many years), so that suggests he probably owns or his family owns the ranch. He has brown eyes that glitter so he is angry. His hands are balled into fists,  he is 'ready.' Obviously, he is expecting trouble to walk through that classroom door.

That is a great opening sentence, because it a) introduces the character; b) describes the character; c) gives you a good first impression because right off the bat you know that whatever is going to happen, he is ready and waiting; and d) makes you start asking questions right away: Who is Kiley? What kind of 'cowboy' is he, working hand who happens to own an expensive hat, or son of rancher owner who is wealthy? Why is he expecting trouble, in school of all places? And who is going to come through that door bringing trouble with him?

2.  Let's try describing our MC from the POV of 3 different people who happen to know her well:
A) Her Best Friend: "Oh, Kenzie is just wonderful! She has this great sense of humor, and she's so smart she makes straight As all the time. I just love her blonde hair and those beautiful green eyes. She's friendly to everyone, and she is the captain of the Cheerleading Squad. She wears all those gorgeous clothes that really show off her figure, and she's even offered to loan some to me that she doesn't wear any more!

B) Her Former Best Friend Who Lost The Competition for Captain of Cheerleading: "MacKenzie is a snob. She flaunts her looks around by wearing all those designer clothes her mom buys for her, and thinks she's better than everyone else. She is shallow and selfish, and she's not any better at cheerleading than I am. She just got to be captain because she agreed to go out with that dorky son of the coach. She's not funny at all, she just makes snarky remarks that all the boys think are funny. And besides, her blonde hair is bleached, because in real life, her hair is almost the same color of brown mine is."

C) The Boy Who Used To Be Her Boyfriend: "MacKenzie is two-faced. She shows the world this wonderful, talented, smart person, which she can be when she wants to, but in private she is egotistical and arrogant. She wants everything to be exactly the way she wants it, and she wants everyone to do exactly what she says. She IS beautiful and smart and all the rest, but she knows it, and she feels like she's entitled to do anything or say anything she wants, even if it hurts someone else. She wants you to be where she can reach you 24/7, and if you're not there to do what she wants, she starts screaming at you... in private, of course. She broke up with me because I told her I was going to my sister's birthday party on the same night as a party one of MacKenzie's friends was throwing. She demanded I go with her, and when I didn't she broke up with me.

Here you have 3 different but descriptive mini-portraits of the same person.  Is any one of them completely true? Probably not, but instead, you have bits and pieces of one person that, collectively, make up a whole multi-dimensional character. If you interviewed her parents, her siblings, perhaps the 'nanny' who took care of her when she was young, you could add to those mini-portraits until a whole, conclusive picture emerged.

These are just a few of the ways you can go about describing your characters. You don't have to list their physical attributes in some long and boring monologue, which will do nothing but turn your readers off. In using some of the above ideas, you not only introduce your reader to your MC and give them some idea of what their physical appearance is, but you also give them a glimpse into their personality, their emotional make-up, and maybe even a peek into what their home life is like. You set the stage for a first impression, and/or you set the reader up to expect something specific from your character... which may or may not be or come true. Either way, you have your reader hooked.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Do Your Characters Make Good First Impressions? Part Two

In Part One, I talked about naming your characters, and how that name might affect the first impression they make. Today I'm going to talk about ethnicity, religious affilliation, and socio-economic status, and how your character's name will suggest to your reader any one or all of these elements. All part of that important first impression.

Suppose when the reader meets your MC, she is told the MC's name is Caitlin O'Hallahan. This immediately sets her up in the reader's mind as both Irish, and most likely, Catholic. So now we have ethnicity and religious affiliation as part of the first impression... all because of the name.  If the story bears this out, all is well and good. The first impression has been made, it's correct, therefore we can trust this author to not deceive us later on.

Now we have Milana Giordano and Rebeccah Feinstein. Can we correctly make the assumption that the first girl is Italian and the second is Jewish? We can...IF the story bears that out. Another MC is named Jamila Raboud...probably Arab, probably Muslim. But again, the story must bear this out for us to be able to trust that the author knows what she is doing when it comes to her characters' names.

Naming a character can also give the reader a first impression of the family's background and socio-economic status. For example, what do you think about this character's background: Nicholas Alexander Wainscot III? Wouldn't you think that a) this young man comes from a wealthy family;  b) the family is from a long lineage and proud of it; c) he is likely to be an arrogant and self-entitled snob who looks down on his peers. Maybe he is most of those things, but maybe "c" is undeserved and uncalled for. Be sure that your character "lives up to" his or her name, or that you have a very good reason for him not to. And if the latter is true, don't keep your readers in the dark for very long as to that reason.

On the other hand, let's say you had twin girls named Ima and Ura...and their last name was...drum roll...Hogg. Yes, I said...Hogg. Ima Hogg. Ura Hogg., I'm not way out in fantasy land somewhere. There were actual twin girls, once upon a time way down South in Texas, named Ima and Ura Hogg. What do you think your reader's first impression of these characters would be? Poor? Uneducated like their parents? ( Surely educated parents would never name their girls like this...) Living in some hobo camp or some kind of urban slum? That first important...would be all wrong. Ima's name is pronounced Ee-mah; Ura's is Oo (rhymes with "coo")-rah; and Hogg is pronounced Ho ( like "hoe")-gug ( rhymes with "jug"). In the 1800s, they were from a very wealthy family, and their father was Governor.

Now are you getting it? Naming your characters is a very important part of your story, and you have two options when you name them: 1) make the name a true and realistic part of their personality, of who they are, and make sure throughout your story that the name continues to be indicative of that; 2) surprise the reader with a twist to your MC's name, something that he would never think of with respect to the name, BUT have a very solid and realistic reason for that twist. AND don't keep the reader in the dark for very long, before that reason becomes obvious. You need to keep the reader's trust in you, trust that you actually do  know what you are doing when it comes to naming your characters, and making that name be an essential part of the first impression.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.