Sunday, April 21, 2013

Making a Character Real, Part II



Specificity.   The more specific you get, the more vivid you get.  It’s not enough to speak of someone just as a “big guy,” “little woman,” “pretty girl,” or “smart kid.”

Downplay generalities and concentrate on detail.  You walk wide around words that apply to anyone:  man, woman, boy, girl, fat, thin, tall, short, pretty.  Save these as a launching pad.  Start with the big picture, the dominant impression:  adjective of manner, vocational noun.  Then you incorporate additional tags and traits that flesh it out.

As you write get down to cases.  Specifics. 

That is, if you’re talking about a man with a limp, don’t let it be just any limp.  Maybe the man lurches along, or drags his foot, or humps his shoulders as if each step were painful. Does he walk with a rigid, erect stance, in a manner that says he doesn’t want to acknowledge his handicap?  Or is his progression more that of a person that’s undergone a kneecap job?  Or the tentative, unsteady trotter in the manner often found in someone ninety years of age?

If the character is a woman who is less than a fragile flower, don’t be content to call her tough.  Let her retrieve a can of Copenhagen from her purse and jam a bunch into her mouth.  Or perhaps she wears black lipstick, or has a scorpion tattooed on her inner thigh. 

These factual details avoid judgmental words and eliminate the writer’s opinion (subjective).  When you say, “She was a tough-looking broad,” you’re passing judgment on her.  You’re assessing her in terms of your personal prejudices.  The reader may or may not agree. 

If you report that “She wore a smudged T-shirt torn to point that her bra-less left breast was almost falling out.  The shirt blazed the slogan, ‘Death ‘and the image of a blood-dripping knife,” your  reader is in a position to draft his/her own conclusions.  Same for “She crossed her legs.  The split skirt fell away, revealing a scorpion tattooed high on the inside of her right thigh.”  The onus of judgment isn’t on you.

Your goal should be to provide your readers with just enough raw material to enable them to draw their own conclusions.

The reader may or may not agree with you when you say that your character looks hung over.  But if you say that the man looks up at you out of “bleary, bloodshot eyes” while he “scrubs shaking fingers along his stubby jaw.”

In the same way, your female lead will come through more sharply if she “runs slender fingers along her stocking, scowling and muttering, ‘Oh shit!’ as a nail snags a loose thread.  Think of the difference if you had said ‘exclaiming petulantly.’

Conjure up a picture of precisely what you saw in your memory.  What are the feelings that go with it?  Search out words to describe it on a level that your reader shares the experience with you. 

Objective presentations are most effective when they concentrate on the particular, the definite and the concrete, rather than the general, the vague and the abstract.  When you speak of the particular, it means that you’re dealing with a unique and special individual, rather than people in general.  “Definite” says exact, specific.  Particular, definite and concrete formulations draw picture in your readers’ heads.  Vivid pictures, especially if you bear down on things you can see and hear and smell and taste and touch.  Seeing is believing and all our feelings spring from sensory perceptions.  Remember the smell of lilacs, bacon frying or day-old sweat?  The smoothness of velvet, the graininess of sand, the roughness of splintered wood.  The taste of ripe Camembert, of sharp cheddar; of chocolate and peppermint and licorice.

It will help, too, in your descriptions if you make use of active verbs as differentiated from passive.  An active verb shows a character doing something, rather than merely existing.

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