Jul 08 2009

Other things about your characters that rarely matter

Published by at 6:37 pm under Character Development

1. What their eyes look like. Eyes are almost never as interesting to the reader as they are to the author.  Additionally, describing what the eyes look like suggests a level of closeness that often implies romantic intimacy.  Finally, eye-color comes up so rarely in real life that it’s weird to mention it in fiction.  Here’s a mental exercise:  take yourself, your mom, your dad, and your significant other.  How many of their eye-colors can you name with certainty?  If eye-colors are such a minor detail to you that you can’t name your mom’s eye-color, what are the odds are that your readers will care about your protagonist’s eyes?  Very, very slim.

2. What they did when they woke up. It is almost impossible to write an interesting morning routine.  If your book starts with a character waking up, the manuscript is probably dead on arrival.  Just cut to the part where they do something interesting.

3. Extra names. In most cases, I’d recommend a first name or a last name, but try to avoid switching between the two.  Middle names are almost always a waste of time.  (In contrast, secret identities are usually acceptable because they are plot-important and because readers can easily understand why the character is sometimes called Superman even though his name is Clark).

4. Measurements. It’s usually awkward to say someone is 6”4′ or that he could bench 300 pounds or whatever.   Unless the characters have a good reason to provide a precise physical description– like cops preparing a dispatch, for example– please avoid using measurements.  Rather than throwing in numbers, it’s usually smoother to say the character is tall or heavy or that he could wrestle grizzlies or that he couldn’t step on a treadmill without it begging for mercy or whatever.

5. Physical details that don’t help develop the character. In particular, I’d recommend focusing on physical details that suggest something about the character’s personality or lifestyle. No one cares whether the character wears a blue shirt or a red shirt. It is far more interesting that the character is wearing the same shirt that he did yesterday, because that develops his slobbish personality.

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “Other things about your characters that rarely matter”

  1. Tom Ingramon 08 Jul 2009 at 8:48 pm

    One that should probably have its own section is hair colour. Most of the time, no one cares what colour someone’s hair is. A really bad example of giving too much detail about a character’s physical appearance is The Outsiders. The characters talk at length about precisely what colour someone’s hair is. Actually, now that I think about it, The Outsiders probably falls afoul of everything on this list. It was pretty easy to tell it was written by a teenage girl–no 14-year old boy I’ve ever met or been talks like that.

  2. Marissaon 08 Jul 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Yeah. It’s especially bothersome when the author stalls the story with a paragraph of physical details like hair color, eye colr, skin color, what they’re wearing, etc. I’d put it down right there.

  3. B. Macon 08 Jul 2009 at 9:12 pm

    One of my writing teachers attempted to explain to me– and your mileage may vary– that humans are hard-wired to associate hair-color with personality. I don’t buy that myself, but his theory is that red-hair suggests a brash, aggressive personality, black hair seems mysterious and cryptic, blonde hair suggests youthfulness and naivety, white hair suggests experience and wisdom, brown hair suggests plainness and normality, etc. Personally, I think that’s a cliche and thin way to develop characters, but again your mileage may vary.

    However, if you do try to use hair-color to suggest a personality, please be sparing.

  4. Marissaon 08 Jul 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Isn’t it ironic then, that in my story, cryptic Tracer’s blonde, youthful(ish) V is brunette, and so is Slater. The one with black hair, Zach, is the farthest from mysterious and cryptic that you can get…

  5. Tomon 09 Jul 2009 at 1:12 am

    Well the white hair is understandable since it comes with age, and I guess you could associate red hair with fire and all the connotations that come with that, and they do say blondes have more fun…

    I guess there’s some truth to that, but I doubt it subconsciously alters someone’s perception of a fictional character.

  6. B. Macon 09 Jul 2009 at 1:22 am

    Blondes have more fun, but brunettes have more funk. Truth!

  7. Marissaon 09 Jul 2009 at 2:20 am

    True that, B. Mac. And those with highlights like myself have fun and funk. ;D

  8. B. Macon 09 Jul 2009 at 2:25 am


  9. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 09 Jul 2009 at 4:11 am

    I have natural Mary Sue hair. Haha. It’s brown with blonde and red bits in it. The ratio of blonde to brown is about 100-1 and the ratio of brown to red is about 500-1. So I guess I have more funk than fun, and more fun than fire? Haha.

  10. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 09 Jul 2009 at 4:23 am

    “…his theory is that red-hair suggests a brash, aggressive personality, black hair seems mysterious and cryptic, blonde hair suggests youthfulness and naivety, white hair suggests experience and wisdom, etc”.

    I never even considered hair colours as a way to develop characters. I just looked on TVTropes at hair colours:

    “In general, though, brown, black or (rarely) naturalistic auburn hair tends to indicate an Ordinary High School Student or some other “grounded”… person”.

    I find that funny, because Isaac has brown hair and he is anything but normal! Haha.

    When I invent characters, I give them random hair colours. I have a brief description sheet for each character, so that I don’t mess up with what little description I give. When I filled them out, I decided hair colours based on nationality (Rana’s dad is Indian, so I gave her black hair) or just gave them random ones. “Okay, Will is blonde, Isaac is a brunette, Amy Belle has black hair, etc”

  11. Lighting Manon 09 Jul 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I’m an aspiring comic book writer/artist, so what with the more visual medium, hair colour does come up without being made an issue, but even when my focus was more on the writing portion, I’ve always thought that hair colour tends to be a fairly important element of an individual, simply due to the general public’s associations between particular personalities, body types and hair colour.

    If I described a man with the sentence “He was taller then the group surrounding him, emaciated to the point of resembling an odd assortment of cloth draped over a misbegotten coat rack. His sickly white skin busied itself with actively resisting the urge to create melanin, so as to not contrast with his tightly cropped flaxen hair. His right hand cups the champagne flute closely to his chest, the stem poking down between his index and ring fingers as he quietly manipulates the movements of the crowd with carefully chosen words.”

    It brings to mind a very particular type of person, a visual archetype that has appeared throughout fiction, and I think that evoking the history of an image is a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal. It is my opinion that using, when applicable, a character’s appearance as a shorthand way of establishing that character before he can be fully established through his words or actions, can only serve to develop a character further in less space.

    More to the point, however, barring his hair colour, his physical appearance to the majority of people, in my opinion, would sound like that of a villainous character, and his hair colour serves to drive that point home, given that it would, hopefully, bring to mind the Aryan idealized version of humanity of Nazi Germany, his weight ties into that because, for most, on a subconscious level, extreme emaciation communicates a propensity or willingness for cruelty.

    On the same hand, this shorthand can used to communicate different things, or use hair with body types it doesn’t have a common association with. What would a person’s initial impressions about a person that looked and behaved like that but had red hair? As others have noted above, red hair communicates brashness or an abrasive personality. How would an individual with such a personality have managed rise to socialite status? Were they born into it?

    Overall, I don’t think that hair colour should be written off as just a detail. It speaks of an individual’s genetic and family history, and those genes that define it also define an individual’s facial features, predispositions to ailments, religions, personality and personal beliefs, and even if you don’t go to the trouble of listing the particular colour, a leading character isn’t fully developed unless the reader can make a educated guess by the end of your story.

  12. Marissaon 09 Jul 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Lighting Man, that’s assuming you’re dealing with someone who puts that much thought into hair color.

    For the most part, we’re referring to the 75% of the rest of the writing community that just chooses a color because it’s pretty or because they want to look badass, or some other shallow reason.

  13. LA Writeron 09 Jul 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Whenever I read a book, by the time I was in the middle of the story, my image of the hero could look different from the description the author gave, simply because it doesn’t really matter. Unless it has something to do with the plot of a story, like a character is looking for someone, it doesn’t really matter. I was wondering, if a character has two names they go by like Clark and Superman, and you’re writing a novel, should you switch to the superhero name whenever Clark goes Superman?

  14. Tom Ingramon 09 Jul 2009 at 6:27 pm

    “I’ve always thought that hair colour tends to be a fairly important element of an individual, simply due to the general public’s associations between particular personalities, body types and hair colour.”

    I still think that going into too much detail about hair colour is kind of creepy. I’ll grant that hair colour is a fairly noticeable physical characteristic, and unlike eye colour mentioning it doesn’t imply intimacy. My main problem was with over-description of hair colour, such as in The Outsiders. The hair colour isn’t used to characterize people in any way. There was a paragraph for each character describing precisely what shade of what colour their hair is, simply because they’re SPESHUL!!!.

    I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with mentioning hair colour, but if you get into too much detail it seems like you’re either romantically involved with the person being described or a creepy stalker (unless, of course, that’s exactly the angle you’re going for).

  15. B. Macon 09 Jul 2009 at 6:33 pm

    “…for most, on a subconscious level, extreme emaciation communicates a propensity or willingness for cruelty.” Hmm. I don’t think that comes up as often as obesity-equals-greed. (It helps that obesity is generally regarded as unattractive within the First World). I suspect that villains tend to be obese more often than they are gaunt and skeletal.

    I think that emaciation is more often a sign of victimhood than cruelty. Also, there are occasionally compelling reasons that the cruel will be well-fed and the victims will not. For example, in a death camp, it wouldn’t make sense if the guards and prison warden were the starving ones. Likewise, there’s a well-established archetype of corporate “fat cats” that are well-fed as their workers starve.

  16. B. Macon 09 Jul 2009 at 6:52 pm

    LA Writer asked “If a character has two names they go by like Clark and Superman, and you’re writing a novel, should you switch to the superhero name whenever Clark goes Superman?”


    The main exception is that it might be more natural for superheroes to use first names in a private conversation. For example, Wonder Woman might call Batman “Bruce” in a private conversation because calling him Batman would probably sound goofy and stilted. (Particularly if the conversation is supposed to sound romantic or dramatic!) However, if the conversation is out in the open or there are bystanders nearby, then it would probably feel irresponsible for WW to risk Batman’s secret identity.

  17. Tomon 10 Jul 2009 at 1:32 am

    I always make sure that readers know the blood type of the characters, it’s clearly the most important aspect of the story. 😛

  18. GSkullon 11 Jul 2009 at 4:37 am

    If you have your characters come from ethnic groups different from your own, it is easier because “they all look the same.”

    The number of limbs the character has is something you might leave out, as well as whether they use walker or a wheelchair.

  19. Marissaon 11 Jul 2009 at 8:09 am

    If they use a wheelchair, that’s something the reader should know.

    And I was unclear earlier. When I said ‘skin color’, I meant ‘pale’ .vs. ‘tanned a perfect bronze’, not the colors associated with race.

  20. Wingson 15 Jul 2009 at 9:05 pm

    A bit ironic, since both Pierce and Darren have (albeit a dark shade) blond hair, and neither are what I’d call naive or youthful (But Ian fits the bill precisely, as does (to an extent) Jazz).

    Meg and Connor are brunettes, although neither are relatively normal.

    We have one redhead to date (Drew in book 2) and he kinda fits the bill, however, he’s a shameless flirt and a bit of an idiot.

    – Wings

  21. Loysquaredon 05 Aug 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Daily routines could be interesting too, for instance: maybe the first thing a character does in the morning is check if his gun is under the pillow, or cleans his riffle while eating breakfast. Perhaps she has every single detail organized in a military fashion, or takes the long route to enjoy the scenery before work. I think it helps build the character, if managed correctly 🙂

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