Character Description: Working With Your Reader

Character Description: Working With Your Reader

I hope the weather is fine where you are today!

I will continue soon with Holly Lisle’s fine series of articles on how to ‘Bring Your Novel to Life’  but I thought that today you might enjoy this fun article by Susan J. Letham that provides a different take on characterization.

It can also be found on Jennifer Stewart’s Write101 site.

Cheers, Lauren

Love changes everything. tm

Character Description: Working With Your Reader

by Susan J. Letham

One hallmark of great writing is that it creates an intimate relationship between writer and reader. Your aim isn’t just to tell the reader a story, but to share it with her, draw her in, allow her to use her own imagination as well as yours.
By helping your reader co-create her experience you hook her and keep her turning pages. So, how do you go about getting your reader to work with you this way?
You do it by mapping main points and leaving space for the reader to fill in the blanks, by drawing the outline and handing your reader a box of crayons. The easiest way to start putting this into practice is in connection with characterization.

Co-creation and Characterization

Stories are first and foremost about people. More precisely, stories deal with people who interact in certain ways with other people and situations.

Let’s look to life to see what this means for your writing. Maybe you have a new writer in your circle, or your kid has a new teacher, or your partner a new boss.

Once you’ve got past the names, what do you want to know about these people?
You probably want to know what they are like–not just what they look like, but the kind of people they are. You want orientation so you know what to expect. You want to be able to predict their actions, so you can tailor your responses to fit.

That’s the way your reader feels when she first walks into your story. She’s looking for orientation so she can understand the events about to unfold. She wants to know what the characters are like so she can predict how they’ll react in the story situations before you affirm her guesses by telling her. By giving your reader the information she wants, you make it easy for her to relax and enjoy the ride.
What does your reader need to know if she’s to co-create your characters? Let’s look and see how you can draw that outline for your reader to color in.

Focus on Qualities

Writers often introduce story characters through physical description. That’s helpful if appearance is a central theme but, as in real life, looks seldom mean much in connection with personality. An approach that describes traits is more helpful. Instead of first describing what your character looks like, answer the “What’s she like?” or the “What kind of person is she?” question instead.

The best way to learn this strategy is to try it out. Here are some examples to start you off. Choose a description that appeals to you and make notes about the character that comes to mind:

S/he’s the kind of person who’d…:
– keep piranhas.
– take walks in a graveyard.
– read Rilke.
– marry a senator.
– wear a pocket protector.
– buy photo wallpaper.
– picket “Victoria’s Secret.”
– love to be in “Big Brother.”
– make Machiavelli quake.

Note that the statements illustrate a ‘type’ and don’t mean that the character actually does the things mentioned, only that she might.

Describe the character’s appearance, what she does for a living, her home, her idea of a good night out. Write a scene that illustrates how your character lives the characteristic. How does a woman who’d make Machiavelli quake act in the office? What kind of office? What kind of character would she need as a lover, partner, business associate, adversary, friend? How did you do? Did you see images in your mind? I’d be extremely surprised if you didn’t see vivid images in response to the activity. The point is that your reader, too, will start to color in the outline you give her. Your reader will work with you and save you the trouble of telling her absolutely everything.

Once you’ve established that “Sarah is the kind of woman who’d buy photo wallpaper,” your reader won’t bat an eyelid when Sarah also buys a baby pink stretch mini-skirt to wear to the church dance.

A good way to practice this skill is to characterize your family and friends. If you had to describe the personalities of people you know well to a stranger, how would you make them sound intriguing by using vivid images?

Try it out:

– My partner is the kind of person who’d…
– My daughter is the kind of person who’d…
– My son is the kind of person who’d…
– My boss is the kind of person who’d…
– My teacher is the kind of person who’d…
– My neighbor is the kind of person who’d…

Character Creation Technique

Work this approach into your stories. Hook your readers by introducing characteristics before you mention outward appearance. Readers will want to read on and learn what you mean by your enigmatic character statement.

Compare these examples:

“Think we got ourselves a cult or something?”
A cult? I looked at Bruce. He must be kidding, I thought, but the look on his face didn’t seem to say so. He stood there, all five-eight and 200-pounds of him, running a hand over his blond crewcut, clearly waiting for me to give him an answer.

Does it matter what Bruce looks like at this point? Does it add to our image and understanding of the kind of person he is? Does it tell us about the relationship between the POV character and Bruce?

“Think we got ourselves a cult or something?”
A cult? I gave Bruce a ‘don’t be stupid’ glare. The only man I knew who openly read supermarket tabloids, he’d been spouting aliens and government conspiracies since the day I took office. (Kate Gerard)

By telling us about Bruce’s reading habits and the effects they have, the author of this second example paints a clear picture of his character and attitude. The example shows how the characters relate to each other.


Take some of your writing and practice this technique by rewriting the character introductions. Exactly how you word things will depend on the POV you’re using. If you’re using third person, you can have the narrator make the statement.If you’re using a limited POV, you can put the statement into the limited character’s thoughts. You can use dialogue to have a character make the statement out loud. Experiment until you feel you have something that works in each case.Your readers will love it!

© 2002, Susan J. Letham
Susan J. Letham is a British writer, multimedia author, andCreative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write and sign upfor quality writing classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching.
This article can be found at the Jennifer Stewart site.

 Cheers, Lauren
 Love changes everything. tm



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s