For 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:
- Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
- The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, Ph.D.
- The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
And for no reason at all, new reading acquisitions that have delighted me:
The Outlaw Bible of American Essays edited by Alan Kaufman
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?