3 Essentials of Effective Character Descriptions

footprint-71137_1280Imagine this scenario: You’re working on that all-important first chapter. You have all your resource files open on your computer, or perhaps printed out and spread on the table beside you: timelines, plot points, character notes, setting details.

You pen the opening paragraphs, setting the scene while avoiding too much description. You add a dash of dialog, a little action. Your main character is on the scene and you know exactly what she looks like, because you’ve written pages of description. You might’ve even written up a nifty character interview. Heck, you know everything from her favorite nail polish color to the contents of her backpack.

It’s time to paint her picture for the reader…and you have no idea where to start.

You know you’re not supposed to include an information dump in the opening pages. You also know that you need to create some kind of mental image for your reader. Preferably in a way that flows naturally, without bogging down the scene.

This is where a lot of people get stuck. You could throw your hands up in despair–or you could apply these 3 guidelines for flowing key information about your characters into your story. Which brings me to my first point…

Tip #1: Find the right place for character description.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the need to cram everything important into the first few pages of your first chapter, take a moment to step away from the keyboard. (Seriously. Stand back!)

Now: What is the most important thing you want your opening to do? How will it pull your readers into the story? Description isn’t the most exciting way to draw readers into your novel, so most books won’t begin with a close look at the character’s appearance. It gets woven in, piece by piece, as the story unfolds–and those opening pages might not have any description at all!

Instead, you might start your story by showing your main character’s actions or reactions. You might begin in the middle of an important conversation or memory. You have lots of choices. The point is that you don’t have to do everything in those opening pages. You can focus on world-building or getting the action rolling or creating the right atmosphere–and let description wait.

Tip #2: Focus character description  on a few “defining details”.

Once you decide where your character’s description fits into the narrative, your next step is to choose a few defining details that paint your character in broad strokes. That lengthy character description you wrote earlier? It’s a great starting point, but you need to pare it down to the essentials.

Check out this description of main character Meghan Chase, in Julie Kagawa‘s novel The Iron King.

The morning before my birthday, I woke up, showered, and rummaged through my dresser for something to wear. Normally, I’d just grab whatever clean-ish thing is on the floor, but today was special. Today was the day Scott Waldron would finally notice me. I wanted to look perfect. Of course, my wardrobe is sadly lacking in the popular-attire department. While other girls spend hours in front of their closets crying, “What should I wear?” my drawers basically hold three things: clothes from Goodwill, hand-me-downs, and overalls….

I finally slipped into cargo pants, a neutral green T-shirt, and my only pair of ratty sneakers, before dragging a brush through my white-blond hair. My hair is straight and very fine, and was doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed my finger up an electrical outlet. Yanking it into a ponytail, I went downstairs.” –The Iron King, Julie Kagawa

Talk about focused description! Although the author spends two paragraphs on Meghan’s looks, she really focuses on two key details, Meghan’s clothing and her hair. (By the way, that description doesn’t appear until page 3 or so of the book.)

Tip #3: Write character descriptions with purpose.

You’re probably thinking, okay, but how do you decide which details count as “defining”? One way to do that is to look at where your character’s key emotions and personality traits intersect with his or her appearance.

Discover your character’s defining details at the intersection of PERSONALITY and PHYSICALITY.

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If you look at the above passage again, you’ll see that the narrator–Meghan–has specific reasons for mentioning those particular details. The author could have written something like this:

Meghan gazed into the mirror, taking stock of her appearance. Her hair was straight and very fine, pulled back into a ponytail. She had a straight nose and even teeth, but her eyes were her best feature, an emerald green that people always thought must be from colored contact lenses.” [NOT from The Iron King]

This version has a longer laundry list of details–but why is Meghan thinking about her appearance? Looking into the mirror is an overdone technique for wedging description into the narrative. Although there’s presumably a mirror in the scene Kagawa writes, it’s never mentioned.

Instead, we know exactly why Meghan mentions her clothes: She wants to impress a boy, and her wardrobe is sadly lacking in the boy-impressing department. Every detail about her clothing speaks to that point. At the end of her description, we’ve got a clear picture of what she’s wearing not only at this instant, but at almost every other instant: clothing that’s well-worn, serviceable, and probably second-hand.

Tip #4: Write character descriptions with attitude.

By the time Meghan actually reveals something about her physical body, she does so with actions and inner dialog that convey her attitude clearly: FRUSTRATION. ANNOYANCE. IRRITATION. She could have simply described her hair as “straight and very fine;” instead, she frames it all with the fact that it’s “doing that stupid floating thing again, where it looked like I’d jammed my finger up an electrical outlet.” We learn that Meghan wears her hair in a ponytail because the author shows her yanking her hair into that ponytail.

(By the way, did you notice that Meghan has a reason for commenting on her hair, too? It’s bugging her–which provides the excuse the author needs to have the character noticing her own hair.)

Here’s one more awesome example of an author weaving character description seamlessly into the story, from Veronica Roth‘s young adult novel, Divergent:

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot….I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention–not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose–I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.” –Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

In this case, the description does appear in the book’s opening. This is how the book begins: with the main character getting her hair cut. It works, even though Roth uses the “looking into the mirror” trick, perhaps because it has a surprising twist. Tris (the main character) isn’t just gazing at herself in the mirror. She’s sneaking a look. She hasn’t looked in a mirror for three months–which immediately makes the reader wonder why not?

This description is focused: we learn the color of Tris’s hair (dull blond) and the shape of her face, eyes, and nose. That’s it.

It all has a purpose: This description introduces readers to a world where people aren’t allowed to look into mirrors whenever they want.

And it has an attitude: Tris is curious and uncertain and maybe just a bit rebellious. After all, she does sneak that verboten look in the mirror….

Your turn: How do you weave character description into a story? Please share in the comments!

How to Write Cliffhanger Chapter Endings

You probably know what a cliffhanger is–a surprise or story twist that leaves the reader hanging at the chapter’s end, so they are compelled to turn to the next page. Sort of like every episode of Lost ended with one character or another in dire straits… Compelling you to queue up the next episode IMMEDIATELY.

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Photo from Adam Kubalica, Flickr Creative Commons

But how seriously should we take this whole cliffhanger concept? I mean, how many surprises and plot twists can an author pull out of her hat without going overboard?

The answer: More than you think. That’s because surprises don’t always have to be huge. Small surprises can also effectively engage your reader’s curiosity. They don’t even have to be real–you can create a cliffhanger from an event that seems alarming at the end of one chapter, only to be revealed as a non-event at the start of the next. (Avoid overusing this type of “false alarm” cliffhanger, though, or you’ll annoy your readers!)

Getting Practical

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, Great, but how do you DO IT? 

I need something more than “make it a cliffhanger!” when I’m trying to crank up tension at my chapter’s end. What I need is a list of possibilities, ideas to help me start brainstorming.

So I asked myself, what do my favorite authors do to ratchet up the tension at the end of a chapter? Read on for a slew of great examples from Jim Butcher’s paranormal bestseller Storm Front.

 

Something Unexpected Happens

The first, most obvious type of cliffhanger is when Something Unexpected Happens.

Cliffhangers can involve someone:

  • Someone takes an action
  • Someone reacts to something
  • Someone arrives
  • Someone leaves

For example,

Someone turned the key in the dead bolt of the apartment’s front door and swung it open.” – end of Chapter 18, Jim Butcher’s Storm Front 

Cliffhangers can involve something:

  • Something happens, on its own timeline or in response to something the character did
  • Something fails to happen
  • Something changes
  • Something fails to change

Note that “something happening” doesn’t always have to be huge.

That cliffhanging something can simply be a new piece of information:

  • The character learns something
  • The character notices something
  • The character figures something out

“That was the key… It was time to talk to Monica Sells.” – end of Chapter 19, Storm Front

  • The character decides something

I narrowed my eyes. I needed a few things from my apartment… And after that, I was going to have a serious talk with one of Chicago’s gangsters.” – end of Chapter 16, Storm Front

  • The character remembers something…or doesn’t remember something

It kept nagging at me, even as I fell asleep. What had I forgotten? And another, less sensible question – who had been on the line who hadn’t wanted to speak to Murphy? Had Monica Sells tried to call me back? Why would she call me off the case and tell me to keep the money?…” – end of Chapter 12, Storm Front

  • The character feels something

And I walked away from Murphy, whom I couldn’t talk to, and from Linda, whom I couldn’t protect, my head aching, weary to my bones, and feeling like a total piece of shit.” – end of Chapter 15, Storm Front

  • The character reacts internally to events.

“Paranoid? Probably. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.” – end of Chapter 1, Storm Front

  • The character makes an urgent demand

“Get me there five minutes ago.” The cabbie blinked at the money, shrugged, and said, “Crazies. Cabbies get all the crazies.” Then he tore out into the street, leaving a cloud of smoke behind us.” – end of Chapter 21, Storm Front

Cliffhangers Near the Climax

As a story nears its climax, it can become progressively more difficult to throw in new plot twists and turns. At some point, your character may simply be on a difficult, but pretty much linear, trek towards the climax. Although you want to avoid predictability, you also don’t want to dump in surprises just for the sake of surprises.
Every single chapter of those books had to end with a cliffhanger. It was the law. A chapter would finish with “Tash stepped off the spaceship and heard a blood-curdling scream!” Then you’d read the next chapter and it would say “But apparently it was just a bird.”
—Daniel Wallace on the Galaxy of Fear series
So how do you end a chapter on a cliffhanging note if nothing new really happens? It turns out that the best writers have a few other cliffhanger tricks up their sleeves.

Sometimes the cliffhanger is simply a statement, from your main character or another character, that reinforces scene tension:

Her words fell with the weight of conviction, simple truth. “There’s nothing anyone can do, now.”” – end of Chapter 20, Storm Front

Summing up the situation can also create a cliffhanger by reminding your reader of everything that’s gone wrong for your hero.

I still felt sick, could still see Gimpy Lawrence’s eyes as he died. I could still hear Linda Randall’s husky laughter in my head. I still regretted lying to Murphy and I still had no intentions of telling her any more than I already had. I still didn’t know who was trying to kill me. I still had no defense to present to the white counsel.

“Let’s face it, Harry,” I told myself. “You’re still screwed.”” – end of Chapter 17, Storm Front

Sometimes this includes a sentence of commentary from your hero:

I took the keys and walked up, out of the light and shelter of McAnally’s and into the storm, my bridges burning behind me.” – end of Chapter 23, Storm Front

Similarly, the chapter ending provides an opportunity to paint a picture of the dire situation that lies ahead.

And so, I walked through a spectral landscape littered with skulls, into the teeth of the coming storm, house covered in malevolent power, throbbing with savage and feral mystic strength. I walked forward to face a murderous opponent who had all the advantages and who stood prepared and willing to kill me from where he stood within the heart of his own destructive power, while I was armed with nothing more than my own skill and wit and experience.

Do I have a great job or what?” – end of Chapter 24, Storm Front

 

Cliffhangers keeps your readers reading by building story tension…when they’re done right. Have any questions or more awesome examples? Please share in the comments!

The Joys of Collaboration

COLLABORATE

A few weeks back, I told you about how working  with my brother-in-law and husband for two weeks of intense creative collaboration, putting together the framework for a transmedia storytelling project.

It was, in short, an awesome experience. Imagine working with a small group of people who are all excited about the same project, but all come into it with different professional backgrounds, different skillsets, and different ways of thinking. We’ve probably all heard about this sort of energized working environment, but usually in the context of startup companies.

Can writers create this type of idea-sparking meeting of the minds?

Apparently, yes. We can. Because those two weeks–although exhausting and demanding–were two of the best weeks of my life. They make me yearn to work with this sort of team on a more regular basis!

The only other place I’ve seen this sort of creative synergy is within my critique group, but never during the actual critique process. Instead, it seems to sneak in when two or three or four members start to brainstorm about how a story might play out differently, or what tidbit of backstory could bump a character’s motivation from blah to powerful.

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Why NaNoWriMo?

What Insane Person Tries to Write 50K Words in 30 Days?

One who wants to improve their ability to create!

This quick video explains why NaNoWriMo is worth doing and what you’ll gain from the experience.

This is for you if

  • You’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and want to know more
  • Your friend / classmate / significant other is participating in NaNoWriMo and you think they’re crazy
  • YOU are participating in NaNoWriMo…and you’re wondering if YOU are crazy
  • You know you thought this book-in-a-month thing was a good idea, but you can’t seem to remember why
  • You just need a good excuse to procrastinate because you don’t want to write :)

If you enjoy, please share!

This is also available as a Prezi (below) if you prefer to go through it without the narration.