A Cast of Androids

canstockphoto4462100For the first time in nearly a year and a half, I sat down and read, from start to finish, the draft of my first novel, written in November 2012 for NaNoWriMo. I was laid out by the flu that month, but determined to meet the goal of 50,000 words. I did it and then I put the damned thing away. I’ve returned many times, flipping disinterestedly through printed pages, redlining here and there, but found it incredibly difficult to commit to serious rewriting.

The obvious joy of reading something written so long ago and in such a mucous-fueled state, is that you are a reader, not a critical mean-spirited writer who is chagrined at every page turn. Let me leap off the self-deprecating train and say, it is a really good story. I was a little surprised. I was anxious to see what would happen. I teared up at all the appropriate moments. I hated all the right characters and feared for the ones I liked. It read like a real book.

Two seconds later, I was a writer again. It got preachy in parts – more telling than showing. There is not a single physical description of any character. There were leaps in time that could only be described as paranormal (and it’s not that kind of book). The points of view switch so rapidly that it’s like being at a tennis match on acid. It is a stinky mess of an amateur attempt, but I’m taking ownership and bringing it back under my wing.

The very first problem I need to tackle is that I either need to turn it into a picture book or I need to learn how to write the physical descriptions of characters. It puzzled me why I had such a strong sense of the characters – their personalities, quirks, weaknesses, mannerisms and no idea how they looked.

Perhaps it is because appearance doesn’t register with me as much as all of those other qualities. When I look at people, it’s a slow view. I am accustomed to reading emotions, mannerisms, watching expressions, hearing language patterns. I am not blind to appearance but it registers only briefly on my radar. It is also the understanding that appearance really doesn’t say much about what is going on inside. Humans are quite adept at being posers.

Still, the physical appearance of a character serves the purpose of first impressions, enough to interest the reader, without being so in-depth that they could be correctly identified in a police lineup. I have to get beyond my personal inclinations and develop real skills. Thank goodness this road has been plowed before (as a resident of Minnesota, plowing is critical).

I will spend the next week re-reading parts of some of my favorite books. How are the character descriptions handled? I will also stare at people in my daily life until they are uncomfortable, while I mentally catalog their appearance. And lastly, I’ll be writing full descriptions of all my novel’s characters and deciding what features say something about them as a person (unkempt hair, shifty eyes, callused hands). Then I will challenge myself to not use stereotypical phrases.

Here are some resources on writing characters that have all been mentioned elsewhere by many other people, but are tagged, dog-eared and actually on my bookshelf:

And for no reason at all, new reading acquisitions that have delighted me:

The Outlaw Bible of American Essays edited by Alan Kaufman

Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists by Robert Hartwell Fiske

If you’re a writer, how do you approach writing about your characters’ physical appearance?

If you’re a reader, how big a role does a physical description of a character play for you?

32 Comments

Filed under Personal, Writing

32 responses to “A Cast of Androids

  1. I haven’t done that with either of my NaNo novels; so maybe I should. It takes courage to do that, and I would rather write than edit. So maybe this is the nudge I needed to get going.

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    • It really helped me to read the novel through, without red pen in hand, to just read the story. I’ve been dismissive of it and so was very surprised to see that there was really something there. I feel overwhelmed by the number of changes, so I’m just going to take the weaknesses that I saw as a reader and try to fix them, one issue at a time. It seems more manageable that way!

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  2. pinklightsabre

    I’m a fan of the ‘less is more’ camp, as a reader and writer. I think it’s marvelous, how we form pictures of characters in our heads with very little guidance from the writer. And in some cases, I can read characters without concrete images of what they look like, and it doesn’t really matter. And that’s the same as it is in real life in some ways, as we form a picture of the people around us but as you say, the physical isn’t as important. I think the character development through actions and motive is more interesting. Loved this post, and the fact you re-read your draft. I’m finally working on my own, about 5,000 words in.

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    • I’m also a fan of less is more, but my novel is completely plot-driven – so much happens in a very short amount of time. I need to not just drag my characters along. I think it lessens the impact not to spend a little time with them.

      I think that no matter what gets written, a reader will formulate a picture based on his or her own perspective. One person might associate brown eyes with a girl he had a crush on while another reader will think of a harsh and cruel piano teacher. I think that is something the writer must be willing to make room for, while still giving enough definition for the character to belong in the story and to help move it along.

      Just starting to read through other writers’ character descriptions and amazed at how few words and phrases needed to quickly paint that picture – just absolute mastery. Congratulations on your own work, Bill. The hardest part is always beginning, but you have skills, my friend!

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  3. In reading, physical descriptions help me but when they clash with my mental image I get annoyed. In real life, I attend much more to how a person carries themselves and relates to their environment.

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    • I think that being too specific on physical description can absolutely irritate the reader. But I wonder if being too vague has the same effect as well – readers aren’t able to get a feel for him or her and then don’t care about the character. I have been reminded that even the character’s description needs to be germane to moving the story along, so I will be asking myself this question a lot:”Does this add to the story or is it superfluous?”

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  4. fransiweinstein

    When I’m writing I ‘see’ the characters very clearly — I don’t really have to think about it. I think that comes from having worked in advertising, particularly with TV commercials, where the character is so important especially when you’re casting for the talent. So for me it’s automatic. When I’m reading, on the other hand, more often than not I imagine the character to look a certain way, so unless there’s a really good reason why I should accept the writer’s description my own imagination usually takes over.

    I love going back and re-reading work I’ve done long ago. I think it’s a really good exercise, so good for you for doing it. If I may so, though, I wouldn’t refer to it as a “stinking mess”. It’s your first draft. You’ll have lots of drafts before you’ll have a good finished product so don’t be overly hard on yourself. Writing is as much about crafting as it is about creating.

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    • I was thinking about how description of setting or character in a novel has been impacted by all the visual cues we have now – TV, internet, photographs. These were not available when many great works were written and the authors had to be very descriptive. I ran across this issue when taking a course on wilderness writing – John Muir had to work harder to describe the environment than Barry Lopez (although Lopez does a fantastic job) because people had to paint pictures in their minds and had no common visual references.

      I amuse myself when referring to my novel as a “stinking mess”. It’s just my sense of humor. If it were really awful, it would have been shredded by now!

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  5. Good for you. Description of one of the people in my memoir is one of the things that stopped me in my tracks. I need to blurt it out and then go back and fix it. And read these books! Thanks. And go to it!

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    • Blurting is likely the one key point to getting on with writing. Nothing is set in stone, so you might as well get it out there, especially if it is serving as an obstacle/excuse to not continue. We have so many of those as it is and we have to get used to knocking them down, one by stubborn one!

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  6. The personalities of the readers will likely greatly influence their answers. I’ve never been irritated by too little physical description of a character since my imagination quickly fills in the blanks. However, I’ve been bored spitless by some authors who seem to put the plot on ice while they drone on with insufferably long descriptions.

    I’m with you all the way on the, “humans are posers” comment.

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    • That is one of the key points I took away from character writing advice. Don’t stop the action to launch into full back stories and descriptions. Things have to keep moving along or else the readers get pulled out of the story and there are lots of other things to grab their attention if you, as a writer, can’t.

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  7. I used to overdo physical descriptions—the Barbara Cartland School of porcelain skin and manes of auburn hair. Blech!
    But I’ve paid attention to how an author’s description gets in the way and goes counter to how I’ve pictured the character in my mind. So I’m of the Less is More Club, too.
    Quirks are more important to me now—nervous ticks, telling expressions. Also if a particular characteristic is important to the plot—like if a depressed character gets cleaned up and puts on a pretty dress. Or how characters see themselves.
    I love your plan to write full background descriptors of each character. That way you’ll have all the details—like a backstory—that will inform your story subtly. The fact that you know what they look like, how they move, etc. will seep through naturally.

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    • You mentioned an interesting aspect – how do characters see themselves? And how do other characters see them? I’m fascinated about how all of those perspectives can be completely different – about the same person.
      That brings to mind the idea that when you speak ill of someone, it is likely those negative traits are associated with you and not the subject of your criticism. The reason I’m thinking of that is that what one’s characters think of each other also reflects on the character with whom the thoughts originated. I think I just gave myself a migraine.
      I lay in bed last night thinking about my main two characters and realized that the one I originally started with is rather unlikable or at least severely flawed. It is going to require some finesse for readers to not wish she’d gotten knocked off as well. So much work to do…

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  8. nice :D
    you wrote some novel ?

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  9. Congrats! I’d love to read it someday.

    I think physical descriptions can be good at times, but if your writing already gives the characters a full sense of “being,” then maybe you don’t need to distract us with their hair color or stature other than a brief mention. I always see characters I read about vaguely anyway.

    If it becomes a screenplay, you could jot some notes in there about “crooked nose” and “auburn hair.” :)

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    • Thanks – I’d like to read a finished version someday as well! From the comments here, it seems like readers decided what characters look like. I’m playing around with physical descriptions and how they can actually move a story along, instead of bogging the writing down in detail. Practice, practice!

      If it becomes a screenplay, I would be…surprised.

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  10. I find it interesting that you have a hard time with descriptions. I would ask why they are necessary though? My father took the same approach in his trilogy. There are minimal to no specific descriptions of many of the characters. He chose to go with the idea of leaving that to the imagination of the reader. He shaped them through feeling and mannerisms and other various details here and there. I’ve read his material many times and I could tell you that it never bothered me that there wasn’t a specific description of many characters. I fell in love with how they felt in my head. They took on shapes outside the norm of “description”. Perhaps you could entertain that idea- keeping them with minimal physical outlines and playing up who they are inside =)

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    • As you can see from the other comments, there is a definite leaning towards the “less is more” school of writing. I don’t know if a character’s physical description is necessary to the story, but if anyone should have a visual clue about them, it should be the writer and I simply don’t. My concern is that by not having a character fully developed, to include appearance, in my mind, that I might be missing out on key aspects that could be used to move the story along. I did manage to write descriptions outside of the novel and I actually think it helped me a lot. I likely won’t burden the reader with all those details, but I definitely found dribs and drabs worth using.

      Thanks for taking the time to read this post and comment!

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  11. Sometimes we are way too hard on ourselves. Before you begin the revisions, I would suggest you have some people you trust read it. That will be honest. Get their feedback. Or if you belong to a writer’s group, take it chapter by chapter for a critique. Make sure you take their critiques as their opinions. That has been what I have done for years and it sure has helped.

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    • I think I’m close to having it read by someone other than myself, but there are definite problems that I’d like to fix. Unexplained leaps in time would be good to repair, as well as being more consistent with POV, which I find very challenging. I like the idea of viewing critiques as opinions. When I did workshops in the past, that was a tough lesson to learn. It takes distance and skill to measure those opinions, sorting what is useful from what is not and learning how not to be resentful!

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  12. I’ve been going through much of the same emotions with my manuscript from last years NaNoWriMo. Last month I read it w/o the red pen and decided it has to be finished. But it was incredibly difficult. It was almost impossible to say “that’s it, it’s okay now”. After struggling for the whole last week, I sent it in on Saturday night.

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    • Congratulations – you should be so proud of yourself! We often hear about how difficult it is for writers to let their work go “out there”. I’m at the stage where there were clear problems for me as a reader and not so much as a persnickety writer. Time to focus on fixing those glaring problems and then give it to a few people to read to see how far off the mark I might be. I’m giving myself to the end of March to make fixes. A deadline is often a good thing for me, since I’m a terrible procrastinator.

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  13. I can describe the living crap out of everything and everybody. Unfortunately, it often turns into dead crap when produced by a verbose amateur, so I can’t criticize you for being sparse with the descriptors!

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    • Six of one, half a dozen of the other I suppose. You have an artist’s eye! I have a writer friend who is also very strong on exposition, but in the end, we have the same problem – how to have enough description to fuel the story, without inundating the reader with details. It’s a difficult balance, but one of those skills that I suspect get better with time and practice.

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  14. Luanne

    Michelle, this is fascinating. I’m so glad you had a chance to read your draft as a reader :). Since I write more non-fiction, I know what the characters look like, but often forget on a first draft to add much description. Then I layer it in later. But for fiction, maybe you could come up with character sketches that have lots of description and then use those to crib from as you’re writing?

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    • My plan was to do exactly that – full write ups of the characters outside of the novel. But best-laid plans are sometimes knocked out cold by the flu…back to it as soon as I am upright and sentient.

      I wonder if non-fiction or memoir/biographical writing is more demanding for physical description? And, as you point out, knowing what characters really look like could serve as an impediment.

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      • Luanne

        It’s true that you can’t things fit together the way you want in nonfiction, but sometimes the truth is just that: the truth and gives true motivations, etc. In fiction I could make a man like my father a big man to make him more scary to a little girl, but then the fact that he really is a small man gives me much more to work with, yah?

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        • I think it takes real skill in fiction to not play to stereotypes, so I think you’re right about having more ways with which to work. Okay, the preceding sentence is what happens when you can’t figure out how NOT to end the sentence in a preposition. Just brutal.

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        • Luanne

          I’ve been struggling with the ending preposition thing lately. I think spoken English has moved too far away from the alternatives and only ending with a prep sounds right!

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