Carolyn M. Walker


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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What's in a Character... or Not?

Carolyn M Walker Characters
This morning during my "writing devotional" time (where I hop online and read new serials or web publications from up and coming authors), I found myself experiencing a strange happening. I read two different short stories, which were very different in terms of story line but very much the same in terms of something else: the characters.

I love reading the works of new authors or forthcoming writers like myself. I draw motivation, ideas and a sense of comradery from each piece. The experience is quite different for me, compared to when I read the works of the more seasoned or well known authors (which I very much love too). With these earlier pieces, I get to see rough drafts, early prints and raw ideas as they slowly come to life.

Among these up and comers, I noticed the characters were missing a proper introduction or didn't have one at all. It was interesting to see this happen back to back in both pieces. It was also enough to get me thinking. During my days as an editor for my university's literary magazine, I critiqued and evaluated endless piles of submitted works.  And when I say I saw it all, I mean I saw it all.

I'm talking about "what not to do" when describing or introducing your character and then "what NEVER to do" when describing or introducing your character. So I've decided to give my two sense on the best ways to breathe life into your characters so your readers can truly appreciate all that Captain Joe or Stealthy Sam the Assassin or Judy Blue the Housewife has to offer. No matter who your characters are, these tips are worth it. ;)


Understand Why Description is Important


The written word is a chance to share your greatest insights and personal knowledge with your reader. Doing so with a strong visual is necessary for the most effective and memorable experience. Unfortunately, so many times I see an excellent opportunity to engage with the reader through description either overlooked or squandered by the writer! On TV, viewers get the benefit of visuals abound but in the written world, the reader depends on the author to deliver strong visualization. Without it, it is nearly impossible to become immersed in a scene or interested in a character.


Describe With Creativity


As writers, we probably have a vivid picture of our characters in our minds. However, just because we do doesn't mean our readers will share in that same vision. We have to DESCRIBE it to them. It seems like a no-brainer but this brings me to the next point. HOW you describe a character is crucial as well. It's not as simple as:

She was 5'8" tall, with long curly red hair and brown eyes and she was very mean.
(This was an actual example of something I reviewed.)

Instead go for a more creative and unique description such as:

She was all legs, some would even say lanky. She watched them, her chestnut brown eyes and auburn curls blending in among the crowd. Her agenda was a dark one.

I'm telling you about the character, describing her and keeping momentum in the scene all at once. You don't have to do all these simultaneously, but this is a great way to say a lot in a short space, without boring your reader.


Go with More but Not too Much


Dependent upon the story, you may want to add more or less description. As above you may want to intertwine it with the story line (which I find best as opposed to stand-alone descriptions). I like to slip descriptions in almost without the reader noticing if possible. As a rule of thumb, I would say it is best to inform your readers with enough description to make the character memorable, yet not too much that the reader is overwhelmed with too many details about the character.


When do I Describe My Character?


When can be as important as what. In the first piece I read this morning, I didn't get a description of the main character until the story was half finished. By then I didn't care anymore. On the second piece, I never got one at all! It was just a young girl and nothing more!  Readers are savvy creatures, so it is important to describe the character sooner than later before they draw false opinions of their own or loose interest altogether.


Character descriptions are fun but they can be tricky if you aren't sure where you want to go with it. Before writing, I always flesh out my characters in advance. Try creating a "character profile" with pertinent tidbits about them. A more in depth option is to create a "character questionnaire" where you get to know your character more intimately as though you were interviewing them! You'd be surprised what you may learn!

Carolyn M. Walker

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