Describing characters in fiction – literary techniques

describing characters in fiction In a previous post about memorable characters in fiction I wrote that writers must offer their readers many occasions to get to know the characters populating their stories.

In fact, just as in real life the more we know about someone the more intense our feelings can grow for that person, the same happens in a novel.

However, given that any work of literature, even the lengthiest one, is always an heavily edited and condensed version of reality, we must choose with care which scenes to include in our stories and which are instead better left out.

For example, if in our book we describe Ms. Jones going through an endless series of only relatively trivial incidents, we can rest assured our readers will put down our book and find something better to do.

Of course, if we really want to write some experimental book full of meta language and self referencing remarks, and discard any description of characters in fiction, nobody prevents us from doing so. But then we shouldn’t be shocked to find out readers wouldn’t touch our brainchild with a two meters long pole.

Characters in fiction – quantity or quality?

Meta fiction apart, a strong description doesn’t entail each scene we use to describe our characters has to be full of things blowing up, of high speed chases, or of thugs locked together in mortal combats.

Rather, it means each scene must offer a depiction of our character that is vivid but not too lengthy, and above all dynamically related to the story we want to tell.

So, for example, if the novel we are writing is about how unrestrained honesty and exaggerated pride can lead to disastrous relationships, it’s better for us to focus on few scenes where such characteristics create emotionally high-impact outcomes.

I mean, we could write a scene where a proposal for marriage turns into an ugly argument and then ends with a slammed door and shattered dreams.

To do so we should focus only briefly on exterior and static descriptions, and instead push hard on the gas when it comes to dynamic ones.

I mean, a line like “her long hair looked dull” isn’t inherently bad at all. But if such kind of descriptions keep piling up, the writing can become boring in no time.

Instead, even an overused line like “her eyes brimmed with tears” is already better than the previous. Because in it there’at least some action, some change.

However, if in this proposal scene we describe how the two characters interact, how and when they move. What and how they say, the scene would be worth tens of others where Ms. Jones, with her unmistakable and condescending voice, only tells people that the shirt they are wearing isn’t of her liking.

In short, in real life many scenes relatively boring build slowly up to a resolution. Instead, in novels given we don’t have a lifetime, we  have to speed this process up, to distill it, so to speak.

Morality – why it is fatal for strong writing

The example I used above is humorous. But writers have to understand that to portray characters who jump off the page and grab the readers’ full attention they have to forget about having morality.

With this I don’t mean writers in their everyday lives have to behave like criminals or mindless monkeys. Not at all. I mean writers have to marshal up their courage to look closely at their characters, and then write what they see.

For example, let’s say Connie, who is the protagonist of our novel, works in a bank and is a compulsive gambler. Being the protagonist, we can’t describe her simply telling our readers she’s a compulsive gambler.

Instead, we have to clearly show what this entails. This means showing Connie while she embezzles money from some accounts of the bank’s clients. This also means showing Connie who, when discovered, tries to seduce the bank manager to avoid being fired. Or showing Connie who, instead of paying the monthly mortgage, wastes it playing the slot machines. You get the idea.

Of course each story is different, but as writers we have only one moral imperative. That’s to say to have none and just look on and report what we see, so to speak.

In the eye of the beholder

Of course, writing explicitly about some subjects can upset some readers. But having to choose between upsetting some of your readers and boring them to death, I think the choice is quite obvious.

Indeed, most of today’s classics have become so exactly because their authors looked at their characters and described them with vehement frankness, not because their wrists trembled. Not because they refrained themselves from saying what they knew they had to.

Just think of Lolita, Wuthering Heights, Catch-22Animal Farm, American Psycho. The idea of sharing company with such writers is quite thrilling, isn’t it?

Pictures:  PeteLinforth – dimitrisvetsikas

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