So… I fell off the face of the Earth. Again. Sorry about that, folks, but circumstances were not with me once again. Fingers crossed I can steam through any further problems life tries to throw at me. But, onto the main topic of this blog’s renewal post!

During my months lurking in cyberspace, haunting my usual writing forums, I kept coming across the same question raised in numerous threads: that of describing characters without being cliched or boring. Finally, I tore myself free and added my two cents. Here’s what I wrote:

Always try and find dynamic ways to introduce descriptions that are interesting and natural to the narrative.

For example, in my first MS I briefly introduced a policeman who was rather portly… But rather than coming right out and saying “Here’s a fat old copper”, I slipped lines like “bloated sausage fingers thumbed through a notepad”,  “he sat down as gracefully as he could, the unfortunate chair groaning under the pressure regardless”, and “he patted his stomach, which continued to ripple and bounce a good five seconds after” into the narrative, each hinting that he’s amusingly round yet not ashamed of his appearance.

If you practice this method of description, it not only seems natural as, just like in real life, the reader will notice different things about your characters over time, but it also allows them to fill in the blanks and personalise the characters – again, for example, I never mention what colour or style hair the policeman had, if any; that’s something minor left to the reader’s imagination.

Avoiding info dumps isn’t just a lesson in exorcising laziness, it also helps freshen narrative and pace. Gone are the days of Dickens & Austen, where one could get away with spending pages describing a miserly man or a pair of curtains. Readers don’t want to feel like they’re being forced to read a detailed biography before being allowed to go on enjoying the story, they want to enjoy it at a natural pace, and that’s what dynamic description can do.

Just be careful not to take it to the extreme and fall into the old trap of only mentioning something important about a character JUST when they need to utilise it, as that too can appear like a lazy cop out. For example, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver: it was introduced years ago as a highly advanced multipurpose tool that can do just about anything (except work on wood), so we as the audience accept it when it’s utilised to deal with a situation or baddie. But if we’d never heard of the darn thing until the Doctor was faced with a room full of activating Daleks and a ticking timebomb, it comes across as a cheap trick, a deus ex machina, a storytelling cheat (of course, the screwdriver is so overused these days that it’s become just as much a lazy problem solution device, but it’s kinda earned the right by this point, even if it means the writers get a bit unoriginal. But I digress…)

Instead, try for the opposite effect, that of Chekhov’s Gun. It’s a term that means if a gun is shown in Act 1, someone is probably going to use it by the end of the story, and character description can utilise this. Give your character(s) a random, seemingly useless item, trait, skill, etc that appears to just be thrown in to make them original. Only, of course, you know differently, and plan to have said item/trait/skill come into good effect later down the line.

This can also tie into foreshadowing: if you mention in passing that “Character A was surprisingly strong for his age”, then maybe that could be a subtle hint that, sometime in the future, there’s going to be a serious problem that only Character A’s strength can solve. Maybe Character B falls off a cliff, and only A was strong enough to pull him back up to safety, you get the idea…

Anyways, I’ll stop rambling now. Hopefully I’ve helped a little bit in understanding ways to utilise more than just stock descriptions. But no matter what, just enjoy writing and it’ll show – that’s the most important thing 🙂

Take care,
Dave

…. So yeah, that’s my input. Hope it helped! I might make more advice posts like this in future if this proved popular!

Dave

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