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