Describing Characters

godfatherUnforgettable characters are – well, difficult to forget. Some such characters that come to mind are The Godfather, Harry Potter, Gollum or Dracula. But instead of trying to create memorable characters, many writers get obsessed with convoluted plots in their novels and short stories. What we need to remember is readers rarely remember entire stories. What they do remember are unforgettable characters.

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Here are three very different examples of character descriptions. In the second piece – A Clockwork Orange – the main character uses made-up words. Nevertheless, we can understand what he means. It still evokes sharp images in our brain, and that’s the essence of what a character description strives for.

Allow the reader to visualize the person described, not as a cardboard cut-out, but as a flesh and blood person.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowlinghagrid
“If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing to the man sitting astride it. He was twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild — long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.”

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess clockwork
“These sharps were dressed in the height of fashion too, with purple and green and orange wigs on their gullivers. Each one not costing less than three or four weeks of those sharps’ wages, I should reckon, and make-up to match (rainbows round the glazzies, that is, and the rot painted very wide). Then they had long black very straight dresses, and on the groody part of them they had little badges of like silver with different malchick’s names on them-Joe and Mike and suchalike.”

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
“He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

The most important asset that a writer has is her sense of observation. Always carry a notebook and pencil and sketch out the eccentrics you encounter in your daily life. Sit at a café and people-watch. You’ll be surprised how much research and material you will collect.

Example: A few weeks ago, my husband and I were walking down Bloor when we almost bumped into a man with a white stick tapping it as if he was blind. He was clearly not. He kept shouting as if he was at a carnival “Nickel, dime or dollar, spare your nickel, dime or dollar.” If anyone gave him anything he’d say, “See you tomorrow.”

Real life is full of such oddballs that you can shoehorn and create unforgettable people to populate your novel or short story.

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