Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Finer Points of Characterization

Every once in a while as I’m working on a manuscript, something makes me recognize a writing craft detail that turns into a light-bulb moment. In recent blogs, I’ve talked about characterization and dialog, because dialog is one of the richest ways of developing a character. Then, of course, there’s action—what the character actually does. Not to mention the character’s interpretation of events around him or her.

Those are the major tools a writer has. Ironically, a lot of writers spend far too much time on something else: physical description. That, my friend, is a double-edged sword. You can actually drive readers away from descriptions of characters. Yes. It’s true. In fact, there are novels out there that have virtually no descriptions of the main characters at all. Readers build up their own picture of the characters and prefer not to be distracted with details that don’t match their perception of the heroine or hero.

That was one of those a-ha moments for me that got me thinking of other less well-known ways to shine the light on your characters. So many writers overlook the more subtle ramifications of point of view. If we’re in the heroine’s point of view (POV) then when she stares at the twisting road ahead of her, leading up into the mountains, the description of that road and the scenery must be her description—not yours. And certainly not just a dry catalog of the black tarmac, pine trees, and mountains. Descriptions mean nothing and are frankly boring unless they provide a glimpse into the character’s soul and emotions.

If your heroine is on her way to a meeting she’s nervous about, she’s not a great driver, and has never been out of the city in her life, she may see the mountainous terrain as more ominous than beautiful. Describing it then becomes a way of revealing her inner life.

The steering wheel felt slippery under her damp palms as she stared at the twisting road ahead. On one side was a sheer drop off that made her stomach clench. One small mistake, a blown tire, a skid, and the car would crash through the flimsy metal barrier and crash through the dark trees that clung precariously to the slopes. But the other side was no better. The mountainside rose sharply away from the edge of the road and small cascades of rocks lay just off the pavement. Rock slides appeared to be common. It would be just her luck if the grumble of her car set one off.

She jerked at the sudden screeching wail of some animal or bird from the depths of the forest. The sound made the hair on the back of her neck prickle.

And so on. It’s less about a plain description than the heroine who is letting her nervous emotions color what others might find to be a gorgeous view. It’s never really about the mountain. It’s about the emotions it evokes.

That’s it. Another arrow for your writing quiver.

Amy Corwin

Mysteries and Romance…what could be better?


Sherry Gloag said...

Amy, thanks for another great blog. I'm one of those who enjoys creating their own 'picture' of the characters in a story, so apart from a basic outline I can build my own picture around, I prefer little description, too.
I loved the way you brought the scenery to life through her emotions. I'll try to make a point of honing that tool a bit more.

L.A. Lopez said...

I find if you describe your character once, that is all that is needed. The basic form is there. I've read books where there is a constant reminder of what the heroine looks like, especially the overly beautiful ones. Its annoying. I'm one for leaving it up to the readers imagination.

Amy said...

Thanks for your comments! I'm always glad to hear things like "one description is enough" because that really helps when thinking about my next book! :)

Jill James said...

I love your description of the mountain road told from the POV of the nervous lady. Great work. Will have to remember that.

morgan wyatt said...

Hi Amy,
I really needed to read what you had to say. I will have to admit I've described scenery from my POV. It makes for a much better story to tell why the scenery impacts the narrator so much. Thanks for your helpful insights.

Joanne said...

Thanks for another tool to add to my ever-growing writer's box. I've really enjoyed your blogs and always learn something new.