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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Score a good impression for your characters

Today I am going to write a about translating character data into palatable, delicious morsels for your would-be readers.

Like me, you may tend to struggle with translating all of that juicy data into something tangible and to the point for your readers. If the urge to dump information about a character, his country, habits, etc. wiggles its way down to your fingers, beware o_O!

We want to write about our characters in such a way that the reader will be able to meet them and gradually get to know them. You know, like how it happens in real life.

Two or three paragraphs of loaded description about every major (or worse, minor) character that the protagonist meets is Overkill. You might think that is a ridiculous thing to point out…but I’ve read books like that. Real LIVE books—ISBN, royalties, and everything. It’s a dangerous world out there.

Books like that really should be banned. 
So how do you show people who my characters are without dumping their entire database (or large chunks of it) at once?

Introduce relevant attributes in toddler –size pieces as you progress through the story.

Pacing is key.

Don’t be in such a rush to tell us (or show us, which is what you should be doing) your character is tall, dark, handsome, extremely built, well-dressed…and somewhat arrogant…and a little too knowledgeable about politics, pick-up lines, and partying.

Give a couple details about a character’s appearance in one scene, and show a key attribute that shines in the character’s heart—like tenderness—down the road.

Because I’m currently scouring the HP series (and Rowling has an uncanny ability to bring her characters to life), let’s see how she introduces us to Harry:

He gets a title of importance—the Boy who Lived—in the very first chapter of the book, setting us up to believe that he’s capable of doing great things, is destined to do great things, etc. This kid’s important. (I mean the title of the book gives that away too, but still.) It’s emphasized a couple of times later, too, to increase the tension and suspense between the conflict between Harry and Voldemort.

His parents have been murdered by a dark wizard named Voldemort, and now he is going to live with the Dursleys, a psychotically normal family that wants nothing to do with magic.

 He has “jet-black hair” and a “curiously shaped cut, like a bolt of lightning” on his forehead.

From the very beginning, we have enough to sympathize with Harry, which is important. If your readers don’t sympathize with your character(s) and their plights, they won’t read it, and the book won’t ever sell.

In the next chapter, we learn that he’s used to spiders and he lives in the cupboard under the stairs with his negligent relatives (Rowling uses the scenery to indicate neglect: no pictures of him; he doesn’t have his own room, but lives under the stairs, etc.).

Later in the same chapter we discover that Harry is a fast runner (which will come in to play again as Seeker), and that he’s “small and skinny for his age” and always has been. He has a “thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes” and wears “round glasses held together by a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.”

Later in the chapter we see that Harry has some astonishing abilities (and that the Dursleys never told him he’s a wizard/a part of the magical community, so it confuses him)…and that he can understand snakes, which won’t come up again until Book 2.

**Good planning to take note of: nothing super significant about Harry is left out; he’s courageous, magically talented, chivalrous, fast, is intelligent but not outrageously so like Hermione, he’s not afraid of spiders…not a single detail is going to waste here.**

Rowling admittedly gives a LOT of detail about Harry in that first chapter, but she paces herself by breaking it up between paragraphs and chapters….and adds on to this knowledge bank as the book, and beyond the book to the series, progresses.

You’ll notice that Rowling also employs a number of different methods to allow us to see Harry’s heart and mind: dialogue, scenery, other characters’ actions, events, POV, and voice.

In addition, Rowling doesn’t ever lead us on: Harry is the pivotal character in the novel, he always has been, and he always will be. There’s a reason why we need to know more about him than say, Goyle.

Follow her example of pacing and her use of strategy (use of dialogue, POV, etc.) to introduce characters in a palatable, sympathetic way. And don’t lead readers to believe that a character is important by giving a lot of descriptive detail unless he/she really is.

You've only got one shot to make a good impression on readers with your character. Make it count!

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