Today we’re going to work with characters a a little more, and talk about how to introduce and describe them.
But first let’s warm up…
(5-minute, stream-of-consciousness exercise, write whatever pops into your brain on the topic. Don’t bother with sentences, paragraphs, or punctuation. Just write.)
Sometimes we can go on and on with descriptions of someone’s clothes, hair and build, but neglect the most important feature of all, their face! Think about all the facial features and how they vary from person to person. Also think about personality traits and how they may show up on a person’s face, ie. an anxious person may have permanent furrowed-brow creases, a shy person’s eyes won’t meet yours, a curious person who is interested in everything might have wide open eyes, big and full of wonder.
Think of people you know well and how you might describe their faces to someone who doesn’t know them.
Introducing Your Character
First impressions are important, as we saw when we looked at Killer Opening Sentences. And the first impression your reader has of your main character is equally important. There are a few different ways to introduce a main character, or any character for that matter:
This is a really straightforward approach. “Elfrida had shoulder-length auburn hair, sparkling green eyes and a dazzling smile…” etc. It’s a standard, easy way to introduce a character, but you’ve really got to reveal something about their character within the visual details. Don’t just tell us what you see – we want to know more! (see the writing prompt below) Unfortunately, introducing your character just by describing them can be a little obvious and plodding. The best way would be to combine the description with a little action and/or dialogue…
Before you say anything further about this character, describe what they’re doing or saying. An action introduction is absolutely vital if you are writing, for example, an adventure story. A great example is the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. We don’t even see Indiana’s face until after he disarms a would-be assassin with his whip. Then he steps out of the shadows. The story really hits the ground running, as he enters the temple, steals the idol, and escapes. Through all this we learn about his character by what he does.
Even if your story isn’t an action story, you can still start off with an action, however mundane:
“Elfrida made her breakfast, carefully cutting the crusts off her toast before nibbling it.” What does that tell you about her personality?
Or start with dialogue:
” ‘Don’t be such a bonehead,’ he snapped at the little boy.” What does that tell you about the speaker, even before we know who he is or what he looks like?
3. INTERIOR THOUGHTS & ATTITUDES
Another way is to start by stating the character’s philosophy of life, or problems, or thoughts, or wishes. Remember the opening for The Phantom Tollbooth?
There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.
Again, you can always jumble this together with the previous two strategies. Maybe start with a line of dialogue, followed by what the character is thinking, then describe them.
A very indirect way to introduce a character, and one which is great for heightening suspense, is to introduce them without them even being present. Maybe other characters are talking about them, or whispering about them, or exchanging anecdotes or rumours about them. In the first Harry Potter book, the magical world is all talking about ‘the boy who lived’ – the little baby who somehow survived Voldemort’s attack. We hear about Harry even before we see him.
This is a very common way to introduce a villain as well. We can listen to people talking fearfully about the bad guy, and see how scared everyone is before we meet him in person. (ie. Voldemort)
Whatever way you begin, the important thing is to communicate at least a few of your characters most prominent personality traits within your introduction.
For example, with Indiana Jones: we see right away he is brave, cool under pressure, skilled, strong, determined, a man of few words.
Now let’s do a little writing…
Writing Prompt – Character Description Exercise
Your first sentence is this:
Halfway through English class the new student arrived.
Step 1. Write the next sentence or two, introducing the new student ONLY by describing their appearance – do NOT include action or dialogue. Give the reader hints about the character’s main personality trait(s) within the description. (Not as easy as it sounds!)
If you’re stuck for a personality trait, just pick one of these:
shy, bold, over-achieving, obsessive-compulsive, clumsy, friendly, argumentative, confused, bossy, efficient, gentle, mean, happy-go-lucky, nervous, rowdy, careful, poetic, sly, sarcastic, peaceful
As you’ll find, some traits are harder than others to communicate via appearance.
Step 2. Continue writing but now you can move on to the student’s actions, what they say and do. Use this to back up what you’ve established in your description. You’ll find this is a much easier way to communicate personality traits.
** The really important thing is to avoid saying outright what the character is or isn’t. Don’t say “She was very shy”, SHOW us. “She slid into the room, hugging the wall and keeping her eyes on the floor.“
– NEXT POST: we’ll move on to character motivation, goals and conflicts –
ingenuous – not to be mistaken with ingenious, this one means: innocent, simple, lacking craft or subtlety
and a related word:
disingenuous – not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does
conceited – excessively proud of oneself, vain
jovial – cheerful and friendly
palindrome – a word that is the same whether spelled backwards or forwards, ie. mom, dad, Bob, racecar; can also be a number (46764), a series of symbols, or even an entire phrase: “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” (For more palindromic fun, check out PALINDROMELIST.net.)
fabulous – extraordinary, remarkable, tremendous, stupendous, wonderful; also: having no basis in reality, mythical (ie. “fabulous beasts”)
And finally, a very quick moment of…
they’re = 2 Words
their = possessive
there = opposite of ‘here’
Carrying on from the Writing Club’s last post about It’s/Its confusion, here we have the mighty there trio. Just like It’s, in the word they’re the apostrophe tells you it is made up of two words: THEY ARE. If you write or see they’re and you’re not sure it’s right, just say the sentence again breaking it up into they are. If the sentence still makes sense, you’ve got the right one.
They’re going there to pick up their car.