In July, I teach a new class at UCSD Extension, “Creating Memorable Characters.” I’m excited about this class because I believe passionately that characters make a novel. You can have a great plot, a great story, but any great plot or story is diminished by cardboard characters. Take Dan Brown’s books. Gripping, fun rides, but can you describe the characters in anything but caricatures? (No fair using Tom Hanks et al. I’m talking from the books.)
I’ve recently read several novels in which the authors feel the need to describe every character we encounter: hair and eye color, height, weight, body build, etc. Is this really necessary? Can’t they leave something to the reader’s imagination?
For example, if I were to describe someone as a New York thug, I believe I’ve covered the territory. My idea of a NY thug may not be the same as yours, but I’ve allowed you to imagine the character as you choose.
Sometimes, you don’t even need a physical description. If I give my villain #2 a lisp, you can provide the rest. The lisp gives you something to hang on to. It gives you a taste of who this fellow might be. It’s up to you to decide whether that lisp makes him crueler than he might otherwise have been, or whether it gives him a sensitive side, an ability to identify with vulnerability. As an author, I can make use of something like a lisp much better than I can make use of his being 5-foot-1o and blonde.
If size, shape, coloring, and race don’t matter, don’t tell the reader the stats. If you do tell, make sure to use that information at some point. In my current piece under development, my main character is sort of short. This matters for two reasons: 1) her partner is extremely tall, and 2) her height will make a difference in the story. But if she had been of average height, why would I need to state that, unless it proved important in the story?
Characters bring a story to life. A writer must see the characters in order to flesh them out, but the reader doesn’t need a snapshot of each character who filters through the story. If you write a description, make it mean something.
Colonel Sanders wore a white suit and sported a white goatee. There was a reason for that. It told us something about him. But telling us that Rahm Emanuel wears a suit means nothing, unless we are told that it is a suit that sells for multiple thousands of dollars and he pairs them with off-the-shelf shoes because of his bunions. THAT is a reason to describe his suits.
More on characters in my next posting.