Someone wrote in the other day to ask for my tips on how to write the details of a chacter without getting bogged down and turning the reader off. Here's what I had to say on the subject.
* * *
Easy-peasy. Here are the best ways to detail a character—most of them unknown to mere mortals and virtually universally unpracticed by anyone, sad to say.
- Devote an entire paragraph or even a page or more to a character's description so you're sure to get everything you can think of down on paper all at once—not! That is the numero uno mistake that most writers make, including so-called professionals. Approaching character description in that way is totally amateurish and self-defeating. Instead, incorporate bits and pieces about the character over the first several times he appears in the book. Then, add additional tidbits as the opportunities present themselves later in the book, dropping another detail here or there. Think of your description as a series of building blocks. You add one here; you add one there. In time, the building is complete. But you never try constructing the entire building all at once.
- Have other characters drop bits and pieces about your Character A for you. You know: "The thing I like most about Jack is that he's reliable. If he says he's going to do something, he does it." Cross one character trait off your bucket list! I used just such a technique in Solid Stiehl—The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl, in which a student points out the great man to his college journalism instructor. Stiehl and the teacher soon become close friends and go on to solve a series of bizarre murders together. Of course, you can also have multiple characters talking about Character A, too. You know, as in one charcter likes this about him but hates that, while another character thinks he's too conceited and a third likens that "conceit" to self-confidence. The possibilities are endless.
- Have Character A define some of his own characteristics, either by talking about what he likes or hates in another person. "Benny treats women like ladies, not tramps. I always respected that about him."
- Have Character A describe some of his own characteristics by his reaction to something that he did or saw. "This mom was in the parking lot outside the store, and she just up and slapped her young son across the face. I walked up to her and said, 'Lady, if I ever see you lay a hand on that child again, your son will end up in a foster home, and you'll be behind bars ... and that's a promise.'" Something like that tells a story in a couple of sentences that would require a paragraph or more to accomplish if you described him in a narrative dump. And, since it reveals the innermost thinking of Character A, it's far more effective and memorable than mere narrative description.
- Have Character A's characteristics come out in the form of a newspaper or magazine article or a television report that another character comes across. If you do this, be sure to maintain proper journalistic style to lend authenticity to the report: "In Madison Tuesday, a young man risked his life in the freezing waters of Lake Mendota to rescue a dog from drowning. The twenty-two-year-old man, a Verona resident, took off his boots and jumped into the lake. He reached the struggling dog and dragged him back to safety by his collar. When asked by a reporter what made him risk his own life to save that of the animal, he replied, 'I couldn't just stand around and watch him drown.'" Powerful stuff when done right; fabricated news reports can tell a ton about a character's personality. I used this technique, too, in my Hymie Stiehl book, along with others. A very effective technique.
- If you're not sure whether or not a descriptive passage you've written runs on too long and bogs down the story, read the description out loud. Rememer: Your ears hear far more efficiently than your mind does. Hear your spoken words and process what you hear as you read them. If you find the description doesn't flow along with the rest of the story but sticks out like a sore thumb, you need to move some of that descriptive narrative elsewhere, using the tips above.
There are dozens of similar ways to add details to a character's physical and emotional makeup. All of them work better than by using a massive narrative dump. More than a line or two of that type of descriptive gibberish gets old really quickly and places the reader in a foul mood ... both toward you and your book. I go into more detail about effective characterization in my how-to book on writing better, About Writing Right—Answers to All Your Questions. If you need any additional information, feel free to contact me at my Website. I'll be happy to get it for you.
In the meantime ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
* * *
D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His blogs appear on his Website at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his columns, "The Author-Ethicist" and "Fury and the Beast," at Substack. They're free; they're entertaining; they're informative, and they run weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)