Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Should We Treat Character Description like Backstory?

Posted by Eileen Astels

If we believe that backstory should be minimalized, released in the smallest doses possible, presented in an interactive way with the present action of the story, and only when absolutely necessary, should we treat character description in the same way?

My answer is: Not exactly, but applying some of the very same principles would definitely be wise.

What was the last character description dump you read? Did it move the story forward? Did it seem like the author pressed the pause button to offer an aside--oh, by the way reader, this guy looks like...? Did it totally contradict the picture of the character that you'd already formed in your head a few pages back? Hate it when that happens.

Think about those questions as you decide HOW TO creatively present your characters visual descriptions in a fresh, interactive, keeping the story moving forward way. Think about HOW MANY DETAILS are really needed to help put a body to your characters.

If we believe our job as a writer includes the challenge of tapping into our reader's imagination, then surely we can trust our readers to take a few carefully selected physical descriptors and create their own perfect picture of the characters guiding our stories.

But, wait. Is it only from those carefully chosen physical descriptive words that we include in our story that the reader forms a visual of our characters? Hopefully not. Dialogue, action/reaction, character quirks/mannerisms, career choice, etc. all play a role in creating a unique visual of your character. And that picture formed will be different for each reader, depending on their personal storehouse of experiences.

So, next time you're tempted to offer a character description dump, stop yourself. Pick out the key visuals that you want every reader to have of this character (note: you should have a reason for wanting this, too) and find a way to reveal it in the action of the story.

Make your character's description a part of the story, not an aside.




Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, great post! Character dumps usually do annoy me. I like some details, but usually even if the character is described fully in one sitting I still don't get an image. Oftentimes I find that just one or two little but important details can do a great job of showing who a character is.
Again, nice post. :-) I've never heard of a "character dump" before, but it's so true.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Makes you think when you phrase it like that, doesn't it? Seriously, it is so similar to a backstory dump in that it takes you right out of the current story flow. At least it does to me. That's why I call it a dump. It usually comes in the form of couple sentence paragraph, much shorter than backstory dumps, but the effect is the same for me.

I agree, it's those vivid, single details along with their natural characterization that help me get a clear picture. A dump just makes me stop to strain to get a visual--totally not enjoyable.