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:
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.
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.
Book: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Publishing: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, September 2009
Pages: 496 (hardcover)
Genre: Young adult, contemporary fantasy, dark comedy
Awards: 2010 Michael L. Printz Award
Read a thousand books: book 1/1000 I read this book because: My accountant friend Amy walked up to me and said, “You’re a writer. You should watch this crazy video. Oh, and you should read the book, too.” So I did.
Review copy: checked out from King County Library System www.kcls.org