Introducing Characters

Introducing characters at the beginning of a story can be tricky. If not done well, it will sink your narrative before it’s had a chance to take off.

Too Many Characters

My mystery A Shadow on the Snow has a lot of characters. My main character Rae lives in a county not only full of suspects but also crammed with relatives and friends. So as not to overwhelm readers, I introduce most of them in groups of two or three per a chapter and spread the introductions of most of the important characters over the first nine chapters.

To Describe or Not to Describe

New writers make the mistake of dumping all description of characters and a lot of their backstory into the beginning. Not only does this slow the story or grind it to a halt, it also removes almost all of the interest in the characters. Readers like to get to know characters over the course of the story.

Opposite to this problem is the one where the characters are barely described or not at all. I’ve found this practice much more common in current books In books offering writing advice, I’ve read that authors don’t need to provide descriptions of characters because readers can build an image from the characters’ actions and conversations. In the case of the main character, they also use his or her thoughts and feelings.

Maybe some readers can do that, but I can’t. I began a romantic suspense novel that opened with three male and three female characters. The author provided names and that was it. Their actions were standard cop scenarios. Because my imagination had so little to go on, the characters were either fuzzy or kept morphing. Well into the story, I received a few crumbs of description for the main characters but by that time, I didn’t care and quit reading. The characters never seemed more than names on a page. If I couldn’t see them as real people, I couldn’t relate to them.

Use Real Life as Guide

So what’s enough description but not too much when introducing characters? One way to approach it is to think about what you notice about a person when you first meet him or her. I pick up on the obvious, such as gender, skin tone, hair color and style, and build. As I speak to him or her, I noticed smaller details like eye color, facial features and idiosyncrasies of speech and mannerisms.

Now I can’t include all of that for every characters. So I distill descriptions to what I call the 1-2 punch. I select the two to three most important features of a character, especially those that will set him or her apart from other characters. Then, if I can come up with it, I try to include a punch–a vivid comparison that sums up the character’s appearance.

When I introduced Rae’s youngest brother, Micah, I sprinkled in description as Rae and their father talk to him. I first mention that he’s a first-grader. Then I mention how “his strawberry blond hair glowed peach in the light from the ceiling fixture”. The punch is the last line of the paragraph: “How could I turn down a request from someone who was as cute as a Christmas elf?”

If the character appears again, I can add finer details like mannerisms.

What do you prefer? No description, some descriptions, or detailed descriptions of characters?

How to Describe Characters in Show Don’t Tell, Part 1

One of my favorite novels is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. And one of the reasons I like it so well is that the main character Ponyboy describes his older brothers and the members of his gang in great detail. In fact, a good chunk of chapter one is devoted to their descriptions. I’ve always liked getting vivid pictures of the characters in the first few pages. It makes the story come alive to me.

But The Outsiders was written over fifty years ago. Today, those kinds of lengthy descriptions would be considered poor writing. I’ve read that one current trend in writing descriptions for characters is to provide only hair color, eye color, or some other distinctive trait and let the reader fill in the details.

Because of this practice, I have a serious problem getting caught up in currently published stories. The characters never seem real to me. I’m rarely given enough details to “see” them. I also think writers aren’t helping readers by scrimping on characters descriptions.

When I wrote my YA mystery short story “A Rose from the Ashes”, I was faced with the problem of how to describe characters in “show don’t tell” without slowing down the story. I also had to describe them from the deep point of view of my main character (MC), nineteen-year-old Rae Riley. Those descriptions would not only tell readers how characters looked but something about how my MC saw them.

I hit on a combination of mentioning a few key traits and then a “handle”, a description to sum up that character. As the story progressed, I’d dribble in reminder descriptions to help readers “see” the characters.

Descriptions for major characters

In “A Rose from the Ashes”, Rae is trying to figure out who her father is and if he was the attacker who tried to murder her pregnant mother twenty years before. Her late mother said only three men could be her father. I had to make those three men distinct individuals. Perhaps more than other MC’s, Rae notices the physical traits of the men because she’s looking for connections to her own characteristics.

I introduce one that is a professor this way:

Terence O’Neil was my idea of a professor. Over sixty, balding with a closely cut black and white beard covering cheeks that shook when he talked. He even smoked a pipe.

The “handle” is Terence O’Neil looks likes Rae’s idea of a professor, which invites the reader to think of their idea of a professor. Then I add some specific traits.

Another candidate for Rae’s father is the sheriff, Walter R. Malinowski IV:

He was one of the few people I’d met who made me feel short. Close to six-six, with biceps bulging like pumpkins under a rumpled button-down shirt, he could easily become the next Thor if he grew out his blond crewcut and added a beard.

The “handle” is that he looks like Thor. Blonde crewcut and his height and bulging biceps are the specific traits. Readers are reminded that Rae is tall–maybe inheriting that feature from the sheriff if he’s her father?–and that she likes superhero movies.

The last candidate is Jason Carlisle, a businessman and a member of the wealthiest family in the county.

Besides being fashionable enough for a runway, Jason had dark brown hair, gel sculpting every strand in place, and soft brown eyes that held a warmth I wanted to wrap myself in. If he was a few inches taller and more muscular, he’d make a perfect Superman.

The “handle” is Superman. Specific traits are hair color, eye color, and being fashionable. Rae has brown eyes, so she notices that trait. Her description also shows that she likes the man.

Throughout the story, I dribble in reminders of the characters appearance. When Terence O’Neil is nervous, he rubs his beard. When the sheriff appears suddenly at an abandoned house, “his massive frame” fills the doorway.

This post is running long, so I will tackle how to describe your main characters and the problem of showing, not telling, ages in my post for next week.

Do you like characters describe in detail or not? What are some memorable descriptions you’ve read?

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