Every character needs a description, but how do you include that description without stopping the story's flow? How do you include it without creating a situation that feels contrived? How often should you describe your characters?
Read Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold and learn description techniques from a master.
To describe or not to describe
Should you describe your characters at all?
Some writers believe that offering too much (or any) description of the main character distances readers from the story because then readers cannot simply picture themselves as the protagonist.
Some writers want to control their world and characters and therefore want to describe those characters so completely they cannot be confused with anyone else. Ever.
Either of these choices is reasonable (altho the second can easily become tedious). These choices are style issues: some readers want a lot of character description while others don't. You get to pick what you want to do.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
If you decide to describe your characters, you must repeat that description throughout your story. Not as a solid block, but with key words placed strategically here and there to remind readers who they are reading about. Readers need these reminders because, while some will sit down to devour a book, most have to set it down to eat, sleep, do homework/laundry, go to school/work, and they will forget what the characters look like during their time away from the book. (Or worse, if they are like me and have two or three books going at once, a lack of description can make it harder to keep the separate story lines straight.)
BEGUILEMENT and Fawn Bluefield
Bujold had some 14 published books under her belt before she wrote Beguilement, the first book in the Sharing Knife series, so she knows a thing or two about writing. She has a clear idea of what her characters look like and keeps offering up reminders for the reader.
Fawn Bluefield, the book’s female protagonist, is described as short, with pale skin, dark curly hair, and big brown eyes. All those descriptions are offered up, again and again, in different ways and from different viewpoints.
From Fawn’s point of view, we learn her appearance through her thoughts (and note the page numbers, to see how often the simple description of being short, or having curly hair, is repeated, and how late into the book it appears):
We are also reminded of Fawn’s appearance through her actions:
Other Characters' Thoughts
We see Fawn’s appearance through the eyes and actions of others, most often from Dag, a Lakewalker patroller who is essentially a foreigner in Fawn’s lands. Note again that these descriptions are consistent, and appear even very late in the book.
A good way to continue reminding readers of a character's description is to compare one character to another. With living characters, you can provide info about both characters with the description. With dead characters, you can give us description without being too contrived:
She looked in the mirror and noticed her face now looked like her mother's. No wonder her father turned away from her.
Note that this technique is almost common enough to be a cliché, or at least a trope (at least in the fantasy I've read), but it can be useful, especially if the comparison between two characters helps explain the relationship between two other characters.
Why did I read this book?
Uh, ‘cause I just loves me some Bujold? Seriously, Lois McMaster Bujold is, like, my favorite author EVER and I reread her stuff with surprising regularity. Now to be honest, this isn’t my favorite Bujold book, and the first time I read it, I really didn’t enjoy it. I was reading it with the YA rules for new authors in mind: all first books in a series must satisfyingly end before the second book can start. This one doesn’t do that. It just stops, rather like the first part of a four-part book than a complete story in itself. When I read it a second time, as the first part, I liked it much, much better (tho the third book in the series is, in fact, my favorite).
I started reading the series again because I wanted something familiar and comfortable. I had a sinus infection when I started re-reading these books and I just didn’t want to struggle with a new author/story while struggling with massive headaches. (Whine, sniffle, whine.)
Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Book 5/1000.
About 1000 Books
Reading widely changes your writing. For the better. Many published writers credit their success to having read voraciously, both in and out of their chosen genres. But most people don't read like editors; they read for enjoyment, not to learn a new writing technique.
I read for a zillion reasons, and one IS to learn writing and story-telling techniques. Occasionally, I'll write about what I learn and share it with you here.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
If your main character is … non-standard: overly mean, vapid, or maybe just plain dumb, learn to evoke sympathy in your readers to keep them engaged in your story.
I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and State of Grace by Hilary Badger back-to-back. That order wasn’t intentional. I read Flowers because I saw the title used in another book (Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything), remembered it was classic sci-fi, decided I should read it *because* it’s classic, and I put it on hold at my local library. I read it when it came in and then… had nothing immediately queued up to read next.
I was skimming my book list and stumbled on Grace. It’s not actually my book. It’s my son’s. He asked me to buy it for him because he made a deal with his friend: He’d read her favorite book (Grace) if she read one of his (Harry Dresden). He never got into it. I figured, well, I read and edit YA and fantasy and *this* YA fantasy is a teen’s favorite, so I should read it. (A large number of the books I read are “shoulds” to keep myself up-to-date with current trends in novels. I don’t mind; it makes it way easier to pick out a book to read when I’m reading for a zillion different reasons, only one of which is pure entertainment!)
So, I read these seemingly very different books back-to-back and was stunned by the similarities in story-telling technique. Both books start out with a not-obviously interesting character: Keyes’ Charlie is a literal moron (“retarded” in the mentally deficient meaning used in the late 1950s) and Badger’s Wren is a vapid teenager, obsessed with having fun.
On the surface, these characters shouldn’t work. There’s no “hook” that lets us latch on to them. Most of us who read are not morons or vapid. How do we see ourselves in these main characters? Neither character is a deep thinker or even observer of the people and situations happening around them. Neither character seems to be a driver, or even able to drive, their own destiny.
And yet… somehow Keyes and Badger are able to evoke sympathy in us for these seemingly simple characters, and that sympathy propels us along the story until the characters grow into themselves.
Flowers for Algernon
Flowers is written in first person POV, and Charlie is a moron. It’s rather difficult to read Flowers at first (unless you’ve had practice with a kid whose school told students to write phonetically and worry about spelling later):
Those misspellings aren’t mine. This is how Charlie hears the words and translates them to the page. Every time Charlie writes (in the first few chapters), it’s this painful phonetic writing with a lot of repetition (Keyes and his editor are GENIUSES, keeping just enough repetition to show us Charlie but not so much we want to gouge our eyes out).
But… Charlie is also earnest in his single-minded desire:
It’s this earnest desire to “be smart” that keeps us reading. Charlie wants very much to be smart, and I found myself reading more: why does Charlie want to be smart? What does he think he’ll get in return? Can the scientists help him?
As Charlie writes more, we see events that have happened to him during his life, some of them awful, but Charlie never saw them as awful when they happened. We see these stories from two points-of-view: Charlie before he is smart, and Charlie after. (Spoiler alert: the scientists DO make Charlie smart.) His first viewing of events pains us because we see the subtext he didn’t. We see him laughing along with his own degradation as people he thinks are his friends make fun of his deficiency.
Worse, we see the events AGAIN as Charlie re-processes them once he’s “smart” enough to see the subtext himself. (Honestly, this is one of the most relentlessly tragic books I think I’ve ever read.) Our hearts break all over again.
As Charlie “gets smart,” our sympathy for him grows and becomes sympathy for ourselves because NOW we can begin to see ourselves in him. The pre-smart Charlie couldn’t question anything. The smart-Charlie wonders about everything.
What does it mean to be human? How do you live a good life? How do you create a loving relationship with someone else? These are all questions we often struggle with and watching Charlie come at them from an educated innocence lets us see these issues from a new angle.
Keyes uses our sympathy for Charlie’s innocence and child-like desires to draw us along the story until Charlie becomes sophisticated enough to lead us on his own.
State of Grace
State of Grace starts out with a similarly child-like character. Teenaged Wren (she’s 16 or 17-ish) appears singularly interested in having fun:
Wren has both the simplistic desires of a child and the childlike ease of accepting and following authority. (And if you’ve raised/are raising a teenager, you know this is SO not the typical case!)
The first few pages are all about Wren pursuing hedonistic activities with very little responsibility of any kind. Even the teens for whom this book is written aren’t living this life, so what keeps us going?
It’s that sympathy again. Quickly, Badger shows us that not all is right in Wren’s world, and even when Wren can't (or won't) see it, we do.
Wren is experiencing something strange, something she “shouldn’t” and it’s her fear that evokes sympathy in us. We’ve all felt (especially when we were teens!) that we didn’t fit in and that not fitting in is dangerous because it means we’re all by ourselves in this big scary world. (Isolation is a cruel punishment/torture in almost every culture.)
We keep reading Grace to see how Wren handles her fear and doubts, to cheer her on when she’s feeling “prenormal.” Our sympathy keeps us reading until Wren has grown sophisticated enough (in her doubts, in her searching for truth/meaning) to lead us in her own story, just like Charlie.
Everything you read has the capacity to teach you something: about yourself, about your world, and (perhaps most importantly) how to write better. If you like this idea of engaging a reader's sympathy, you may also want to consider reading the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson's anti-hero's actions are profoundly unheroic. About half the people I know who read this series (it came out in the late 70s and is STILL in print) threw the book across the room and quit forever and the other half kept going, grudgingly, after they picked the book up off the floor. That anyone kept going at all (and I was one), is, I think, a huge testament to the power of sympathy.
A thousand years ago* I wrote a post about how reading 1000 books changes your writing. I wrote a few articles*** about different techniques you can learn by reading different books. I wrote about how I really don’t like rating books. So much of rating is based on personal preference and what I like you may not and vice versa.** And then… I didn’t write anymore. Hah! That changes now.
* Three. Three years ago.
** Plus… I know just how long it can take to write, rewrite, edit, re-edit, format, re-format a book. Who am I to judge its quantitative worth? I liked it, I didn’t like it. I loved it enough to ready it a zillion times; I learned enough from reading it once. My 4 stars means nothing to you…
*** Related articles
I first read North of Beautiful back after I heardJustina Chen speak at a SCBWI writers conference. She was lively and local (to me; she was living in the Seattle area) so I thought I should give her book a go. Whoa. I loved it. Really. And I read a lot of books for a lot of reasons; I don’t expect to love anything anymore—I just want to learn.
But I loved NoB and knew I wanted to write about it—eventually. But as life ground on, I completely forgot about the book, until a mentee asked me to review an article she was writing about the use of theme in How to Train Your Dragon. Reading her article, I knew she wasn’t referring to theme, but something else. I just couldn’t put my finger on the something else.
Then I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted. In Twisted, Tyler, the main character, is sent to in-school suspension. There, his English teacher reviews symbolism, motif, and theme. I was a little ticked at LHA for not telling us readers the difference but, well, she wasn’t writing an English textbook. It did lead me to Wikipedia and a few other sources (come on! I’m a (relatively) responsible researcher) to look up the differences and that taught me about NoB.
Justina Chen is a master of motif.
According to Wikipedia (OK, sometimes I’m just a lazy researcher), motif is “any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood.”
JC’s use of maps and mapping terminology is consistent, constant, and clearly helps build on the narrative’s themes of finding and accepting yourself.
The book’s cover includes a compass rose, and the title is “North” of Beautiful. I don’t usually include cover and title when learning about books because often the author has no or little say in these things, but, what the author definitively has a say in are the parts and chapter titles. And the motif continues throughout that structure: the three parts are titled “Terra Nullis” (null earth, Latin), “Terra Incognita” (unknown or untested earth), and “Terra Firma.” The theme of each part reflects the part’s title. In “Terra Nullis,” Terra feels awkward, hating her face (she has a port wine stain) and herself. She is unsure of her future, her relationship with her parents, and her art. She feels like she is nothing. In “Terra Incognita,” Terra starts exploring her options, working on her art, trying a new surgery. Her trials at becoming a self-confident independent young woman are random stabs in the dark, unknown and untested. In the third part, “Terra Firma”, Terra’s journey solidifies as she grows into herself.
JC keeps the motifs going with the book’s chapter titles. Titles include “The Topography of Guilt” (topography is the study of the surface of the earth), “Here be Dragons” (in reference to dragons old mapmakers drew in the margins where unknown lands lay), “Dead Reckoning” (the process of calculating your current position by using a previously determined position), and “Orientation.” While each chapter references some aspect of mapmaking, the chapter titles are not random.
In “Orientation,” Terra and Jacob meet; they swap stories, learning about each other and their current journeys (they meet in Leavenworth—which really is as JC describes it—halfway to their final destinations). Additionally in this chapter, Jacob, as a Chinese Goth with a scar from a cleft palate surgery, shows (orients) Terra to another way to deal with the stares she receives because of her port wine stain.
It keeps going. The use of mapmaking as motif continues with the character names: Terra (earth) and Terra’s brothers--Mercatur and Claudius. (As a side note, I first learned about the Mercator mapping system on The West Wing.)
JC uses mapping as subplots in the book as well. Terra’s father is a disgraced cartographer. Jacob introduces her to geocaching (a sport/hobby where you try to find “treasure” caches using GPS coordinates. If you have a smart-phone, there’s an app for that. The Boy and I have found a dozen or so caches so far and have introduced a whole mess of other kids to the adventure. If it hadn’t been for JC, I’d never have known about it!). Terra’s aunt leaves one of Terra’s father’s challenged maps torn in pieces as a cache treasure.
Additionally, JC, through Terra, uses maps as metaphors for Terra’s feelings:
“But all maps lie. … even the best maps distort the truth… Greenland balloons; Africa stretches.” Page 4
“But Erik was at my side like a lost adventurer chasing the North Star.” Page 20
“Unlike his cartographic namesake, Geradus Mercatur, Merc wasn’t just laying down lines for lands that had already been discovered, transferring a globe into a flat map. He was seeing the world.” Page 41
It goes on, throughout the book, instances of mapmaking changing lives; mapping terminology describing Terra’s thoughts and feelings; mapping as an activity to provide background for the characters.
Because mapping is used so heavily throughout the book, and it is tied so closely to the theme (you need a map to find something, even if it’s yourself), motif can easily be confused with theme. The two may overlap, and motif can be used to build theme, but motif is separate: a subset of theme.
I can’t help but think this use of motif would make a good story idea generator. Figure out your hobbies—knitting, horseback riding, sailing—anything with its own language. How can you use the language of your chosen hobby to show—anything? Then build a plot around that.
Regardless, when you’re ready to add another layer to your novel through revision, scan for any powerful images you’ve already used and see if you can’t repeat those images, even just two or three times, to build up your theme. And read North of Beautiful to see how a master does it.
Bonus! A few characters from JC’s Girl Overboard make a cameo appearance here.
Whine: Justina (can I call her Justina when I’ve only heard her speak and read her books? Or is that like stalking?) totally used the naked spa in her book before I could. Pout.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in 2010
Remember back in Read 1000 books about how I don’t like to review books? I don’t. But I love to read, both for pleasure and for learning. And I’ve learned something about writing from every single book I’ve read.
Before I started reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, I had just read through a friend’s complete novel manuscript and two teen writers’ chapter submissions and received feedback on a few scenes from my novel. The common feedback? No one had any idea what any of the characters looked like.
THAT is a problem, I thought. And then I picked up Going Bovine and noticed almost right away Bray’s use of character descriptions and how she sprinkles them, repeatedly, into the story. For example:
Technically, girls aren’t allowed in men’s bathrooms, but since only the losers, present company included, ever use this one, it’s a nonissue. Besides, Rachel’s five ten with six tattoos and seven piercings. Nobody gives her shit.
Kyle tucks his long, stringy blonde hair behind his ears.
The door bangs open, and a really small dude with a huge ‘fro comes barreling out, pushing up his sleeves. It takes me a minute to realize he’s a dwarf.
She’s [Jenna] standing beside the water fountain with her dance squad, her dark blond hair pulled up into the requisite ponytail and cascading ribbons.
But against the uniform pert tan-blondness that is the dance team, my [Cameron’s] shaggy dark hair, British-musician-on-the-dole pale skin, and six feet of seriously awkward body stand out like a strip of film negatives plopped down on top of their happy group photo.
Eubie’s growing a little soul patch. It looks good with the dreads and the multicolored T-shirt emblazoned with the face of some famous reggae star.
Even though Bray introduces four characters in one chapter (pages 10 – 15), they each have a little something, not a huge description, but a little something that helps readers distinguish them. And that little something is so skillfully done, and so subtly, that we recognize the characters when they appear later in the book, like Rachel and Eubie, either as themselves or morphed into a new character on Cameron’s (the main character) road trip.
Not only does Bray provide individual descriptions unique to her major characters, but she also takes advantage of reader expectations and/or stereotypes to help fill in details for her minor characters: Jenna has dark blond hair, and she’s part of the dance squad. We can deduce she’s good looking, tan (even before Cameron’s description of himself), thin, and maybe even tall, based on our idea of what girls look like when they’re on the dance team. And as a minor character, we can even guess some things about Jenna’s character—again based on our ideas of a high school dancer.
Don’t be afraid to use stereotypes to help flesh out minor characters. Don’t RELY on those stereotypes and don’t use them for major characters, or for every minor character, but for a few characters—especially those who really just serve as background decoration—it’s quite useful.
And remember to “sprinkle” in your characters’ descriptions, as Bray does, in bits and pieces continually throughout your story to remind readers what they look like and how they act. Have Eubie rub his soul patch or push his dreads back under a cap (Bray puts him in new band T-shirts for almost each scene), but also have a reason why he does it. Does Eubie rub his soul patch when he’s nervous? Does he push his dreads out of his eyes just so he can see (has it become a habitual gesture)? These repetitions make your characters real to our readers.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in August 2010
A few years ago, I finished reading A Single Shard. I loved it so much, I immediately headed over to the author Linda Sue Park’s website and read everything she had to say about writing. This was when my son was still a baby and taking up an inordinate amount of my time. I wanted a quick-and-easy out to spending lots of time writing every day, something I could easily do in between naps and feedings, playtime and errands.
Well, there isn’t an easy out, but there was something I could do. Park mentions she “heard an editor say, ‘Read a thousand books of the genre you're interested in. THEN write yours.’ "
And she went on to do just that. She read, wrote a book, and sold it on its first submission. She later won the Newbery Medal Award for A Single Shard.
Reading widely improves your writing.
And the converse is also true: NOT reading will NOT improve your writing. It may even hurt your chances at selling your work.
What do you learn when reading someone else’s book? Glad you asked.
Reading in your genre
When you read books in the genre you plan to write (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, horror, picture books, middle grade, young adult…), you learn
What you like, and therefore, what you want to write. After reading many of Ellen Hopkins’ books, I’ve learned I don’t like books that bleak. I want my books to end in hope. Do you like books with a lot of action? Romance? Shopping? Reading widely will help you hone in on your own interests.
What’s become cliché. Diana Wynne Jones wrote The Tough Guide to Fantasyland exposing many of the clichés in fantasy novels (my favorite: “horses can be used just like bicycles”), but as no one (I know of) has done the same for every genre available, you’ll just have to read to ensure your plot, characters, and conflict contain some spark of originality that will appeal to tired readers.
How to handle description. Some genres (fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction come to mind) love sweeping passages of description. Others, especially YA, don’t. As you read in your genre, you internalize how much is too much and when and where to place setting details.
How point of view (POV), word choice, verb tense, and other language decisions affect the tone of your story. First person present tense can create a close—sometimes claustrophobic—tone, but it’s also common for young adult novels.
You also internalize certain…not rules, but guidelines, for your genre. By reading widely within your genre of choice, you learn whether sex, drugs, cursing are "allowable." You internalize plot pacing commonalities—how much tension do you need to create? How often do you need to break the tension with some sort of relief? How long can the story continue after the ultimate denouement?
Reading outside your genre
Don’t limit yourself. Read widely. If you plan to write YA, make sure you read nonfiction, mysteries, fantasy, picture books. Everything. By reading outside your genre, you learn
Storytelling techniques that you can apply to your novel to give it a new spin that may sift it to the stop of an editor’s slush pile.
How to combine nonfiction elements into your fiction work and how to write your nonfiction work using fiction techniques to make your writing lift off the page and capture a reader’s interest.
New vocabulary used in perhaps new ways. (I love reading Barbara Hambly and Neal Stephenson just for that reason. She taught me chiaroscuro; he taught me gallimaufry. I’m hoping to use those words someday in a work of my own…)
Learning from books
I have a hard time writing actual book reviews. I know how hard it is to write a novel, start to finish, to revise it over and over and over again, to tentatively show it to someone, hoping for good feedback but likely getting notes for yet more revisions. If a book has been published, SOMEONE saw enough value in it to purchase it, put it through even more editing revisions, publicize it, and sell it.
So, I won’t be writing any book reviews here. Instead, I’ll share what I’m reading and what I’ve learned from it.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
This post first appeared on my previous blog in August 2010.
I read, and then I tell you about what I've read. Whether you want to hear about it or not...