Don’t Describe Your Characters?

puppy loveI’m going to stop now and tell you outright that I’m a handsome fella, and I’ve broken many hearts and will continue to do so for the good part of the next 50 years. My hair is black and my eyes hazel brown, and a sight to see for many a mile, especially if you’re walking in a desolate wasteland.

Chances are good you don’t believe me at the moment. Even if you do … you’d be waiting for me to prove it to you, to break your heart, and to show you how dazzling I can be.

Well, no. I can’t prove it to you since all that was a lie.

But the above description makes a point I would like to share today: everytime I describe a character I create an expectation – a raised eyebrow that awaits proof of my statement. If I call Mr Green a ‘despicable, unagreeable old geezer, prone to fits of uncontrollable rage and quick to change his mind on any subject’ I’ll have a lot to cover, and most of it through actions and words and monologues.

It has been personal habit really, this reluctance to describe character attributes. Early on I found my character development to be limited – I just didn’t have the skill to paint real people onto the pages of my book. I know there are quite a few novelists who pull this off without batting an eyelid – Tolstoy’s War And Peace has believable characters, a true accomplishment when you realize the novel spans 900 plus pages and is littered with a hundred member cast.

So what did I do? I covered. I kept character descriptions to just the physical attributes, letting the reader pick up on how the character thought and moved and ticked throughout the course of the novel. It worked, and in the meantime I practised furiously the art of bringing my characters to life.

Now there are limitations to this technique, and I’m the first to admit that. If you have a huge cast of characters (and a relatively short plot) there just isn’t enough time to develop each and every one of them. And if it’s flash fiction or short stories don’t bother. You’re better off describing the character, since discrepancies aren’t likely to occur and you don’t need to aim for an emotional connection for such a small piece.

kevinbook_1.jpgWant an example of this? I’ve just finished We Need To Talk About Kevin, a novel about the aftermath of a high school killing. In the series of letters that make up the book we grow to intimately understand Kevin – why he did what he did, what motivates him, how he grew up the way he did despite all the love his parents had for him.

We don’t develop this understanding because of a torrent of descriptions; rather Lionel Shriver gives example after example of what Kevin does, and slowly we piece together the person he is. It is an amazing book, with a powerful way of studying a character, stripping him down layer by layer, motivation by motivation.

You never love Kevin. You hate him. But you understand why he does the things he does, why he thinks the way he thinks.

You get under his skin, and you get under the skin of his mother. It’s not a comfortable place to be.

See the power of excluding descriptions? Some call it showing and not telling, but the best way to understand would be to dissect a 468 page, award winning example for yourself. Read it.

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Category: Learning To Write