Character Descriptions – Creating a Picture With Words

Fat? Skinny? Tall or Short? What category does your character fit in?

Some of us have over-active imaginations which allow us to ‘see’ what a character looks like. Translating that picture in our heads to paper should be easy, right? Not always. What about when you have several characters floating in and out of scenes throughout the manuscript?

 How do you hammer out each description while ensuring none of them are alike? It takes planning, plain and simple.

One of my favorite things to do is have a working picture chart for each major and minor character for quick reference. I got this idea from a critique partner and I will never write without one again. My favorite place to look for character references are on the Internet, movies, and television. When developing a new character, I already have an idea of their physical attributes, the sound of their voice, and the way their body moves. Finding a picture I can study makes a world of difference when writing a full character description. If you only go by what you imagine, there will be things missing, such as, subtle quirks like the way a character stands, a twitch of the mouth, or that hidden mole. Your eye may not notice at first glance, but after studying a photo, you can add an extra layer of ‘life’ to the character.

Let me demonstrate.

In A Heart Not Easily Broken, there is a chapter where Ebony Campbell, the heroine, has the opportunity to study her future love interest, Brian Young, from a distance. He’s standing in her back yard trimming the grass along the fences edge with a weed whacker and not wearing a shirt.

Here’s the way that scene was written without having a visual reference to refer too (rough draft):

          Brian stood with his weed whacker, swinging it along side the fence. My eyes widened; the man was shirtless. The man had an incredibly strong looking back. His shorts hung off his hips and made his underwear visible, while a damp shirt hung from his belt buckle. Hmm, boxers or briefs? Sweat ran down his back to his shorts. 
          None of that compared to the way he looked when he turned around to one of the guys working with him. His body was free of body fat, with a little hair on his chest. Tight abs shown a ripple of muscles so tight I could barely see his belly button. 
          Brian’s tanned skin reminded me of a Greek statue, he must work outside a lot. His baseball cap was turned backward, hiding the blond curly hair I’d seen at the club. His damp hair hung below its edge, showing off his square facial structure and the angle of his nose. His blue eyes were bright.
          Brian was unbelievably sexy.

Could you visualize what Ebony sees? I’m sure you were able to get a decent idea. Brian’s working outside, he’s sweating, it’s hot, and Ebony’s attracted to him. But how about the version found in the book? (after a  picture reference, a thesaurus, a multitude of edits, rewrites, and an over active imagination!) This is what I finished with:

           Brian stood with his weed whacker, swinging it in a controlled arch along the fence. My eyes widened; the man was shirtless. The man had an incredibly strong looking back. His shorts hung loosely from his hips, exposing the top of his underwear from the weight of the sweat-stained shirt stuffed under his belt. Hmm, boxers or briefs? Sweat ran in heavy rivets down his shoulder blades, trickling to the already damp shorts. 
          None of that compared to the way he looked when he turned around to speak to one of the guys working with him. His long torso, free of unwanted body fat, sported a light sprinkling of blond hair between his pecks. A tight abdomen showed every cut of muscle I’d seen in high school biology textbooks. His abs were tight, his belly button nearly nonexistent. 
          Brian’s bronzed skin reminded me of a Greek statue, a testament of many hours spent working outside. His backward baseball cap hid the thick blond curls I’d seen at the club. The damp ringlets hung below its rim, accentuating his square facial structure and the shape of his nose. His blue eyes seemed to glow from deep within his skin. 
         Brian was unbelievably sexy.


Visual descriptive, right? Both had the same idea, but the second one took the time to describe every single detail Ebony saw. Because of this, the reader is guaranteed to feel one of two things, ‘wow, it’s hot, he’s sweaty, and could use a shower’, or since your deep in Ebony’s POV, your right a long with her thinking the sight of a hard working man tunes her on!

Perfect character descriptions do not usually appear while writing your rough draft. A Heart Not Easily Broken had so many rewrites and drafts I stopped counting at number eight, and believe me, there were still a few after that. But with each scene, I forced myself to take the time to write the descriptions of the characters in as much detail as possible. It didn’t matter who’s POV the description came from.

Since my books are written in first POV, one of the first things I had to learn was how to have a person describe themselves without it sounding clinical.

Here’s an example of Ebony describing herself physically when comparing herself to her best friend, Yasmine:

Not so creative writing (first draft):

          Yasmine’s light colored skin, skinny body, long legs and small breast suited her personality. There were times I wished my body was like hers. It would make shopping for clothes easier. I had a body like my Nana did when she was my age. If I looked at her photo albums, I looked just like her . We both had brown skin, shapely hips, big butts, and large breast. 

Oh man was THAT boring!

Now, here is the book version:

          Yasmine’s high-yellow complexion, slender ballet dancer body, long legs, and B-cups breasts suited her personality.  There were times I wished my body was more like hers, though. It would make shopping for clothes a lot easier. As it was, I had been blessed with the shapely figure my Nana called ‘bootylicious’.  According to her, and her photo albums, I looked just like her when she was my age, with caramel-colored skin, perfectly proportioned hips, a butt that drew major attention, and D-cup breasts, making it hard for a man to look me straight in the eye.

So much better, and (if you are a lady!) can probably visualize yourself as either character, right?

A word of advice: when writing a characters description (especially if being done from first person POV), it’s best to have them compare themselves to others, or stare into the mirror and describe what they do or don’t like, as a suggestion. Having them say, “I have long hair, brown eyes, and dark skin,” is not being creative. “My hair reached the top of my bra strap, my eyes were coals of molten like my mothers. I had her rich coco-colored skin, too,” sounds much better. Okay, I threw that one together, but hopefully you get the point.

So, with visual aid (come on guys and gals, searching for that perfect pic can be fun!), lots of imagination, and the ever handy thesaurus, you can write descriptive scenes, too!

Until next time, WRITE WELL!!!!

MJ

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Building Real Characters: How to Bring Them From the Page and Into Your Heart

I’ve read many articles and blogs dealing with character development. Each has taught me something I have used to aid me in making my characters real. Though I must confess, it is impossible to create a lovable character – or one you hate – without doing several ‘passes’ over your MS. But before you reach the writing stage, you have to know who it is your birthing into your ‘world’. Whether your genre is sci-fi, paranormal, or contemporary, the ‘world’ your character inhabits needs real people in it. Creating characters that are neither cardboard nor two-dimensional takes time. Just like getting to know someone in the real world, or cyber world,  if you spend as much time on Twitter or FB like I do.
So, how is it done?
Google character building and you will find tons of research articles to point you in the right direction. Today, I decided to share a few things that I’ve learned, as well as few tricks I’ve pulled from my own hat to make them even more realistic.

The Physical:

One of my critique partners showed me something one day that I could never, ever write without. She had a picture collage she put together of actors, actresses, and models that fit the physical description of the way she saw her characters. Not only is it a great way to actually ‘see’ your characters in the real world, it’s a great way to reference them without mixing them up with their sidekicks or other family members.

My favorite thing to do when writing is pull up pictures of my h/h side by side and look at them. I’ll imagine what expressions they’ll make while having a conversation, sort of like animators do when drawing a cartoon character. Bringing the characters to ‘life’ is so much better than just imagining them in my head without a visual reference.
Character Charts:
I’ve mentioned them before on a previous blog, (The Importance of Writing Outlines, Part Two), but there’s no harm in mentioning them again. Every writer knows the type of story they want to tell and can envision the types of characters that inhabit that world. But who are they?
Unsure of what traits to give your characters? This book by Linda N. Edelstein, PH.D is a great place to start!

My first attempt at writing a character chart focused on the basic information: name, age, height, weight, race, parents, you know the drill. Pretty much the average questions we all answer when writing a bio for our FB accounts. But does that say who we are? What our life experiences have been? What events in our lives make us who we are?

Nope. But we need these things in order to create real characters. Who is in their family? What was their first job? What are their beliefs? What would they be willing to fight for and can’t live without? What dirty little secret sits in the closet and threatens to ruin their life if anyone found out?
Being able to answer those type of questions – even if they are not relevant to your story – will help you fill in the blanks as you write. Establishing these things is like having the character sit next to you as you type and say, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t do that. This is what I would do.” Oh yes, that wonderful moment when your character interrupts your train of thought as you write a scene and hijacks it. Next thing you know, they’ve taken over and what you imagined would be brilliant looks like dog crap next to what they’ve shown you.
That type of moment can’t be found without having the correct tools to get to know them.
A year ago, I was pointed in the direction of this writer, Charlotte Dillion’s, website.  There I found the most detailed character outline chart I’ve ever seen. I’m sure we’ve all ran across them in books on writing, but this one, in my opinion, took it a few levels deeper. You have to check this link out: Character Charts. (Besides this character chart, she has a wealth of other writing information to share. Stick around and check it out.)
At first glance it’s a little daunting. When printed out, page, after page, after page of questions. My first thought was, “How am I supposed to answer this?” I knew then I had no idea who my characters truly were.  I spent the next two weeks getting to know my hero and heroine. I invited them to move in with me and my family (yeah, the kids thought it was kind of weird, but hey, they’re fictional, at least they didn’t need food or a place to sleep!) and spent a week getting to know each character. I interviewed them, learned about their family history, bad dating experiences, dream jobs, and things they hated the most. When the two weeks were up, I knew them as well as I know myself and could understand why they’d fall in love. I also understood how they would react to the issues I threw at them. My hero took one look at the original ending of my story and flat out told me he wasn’t a punk. I needed to give him some balls or else he was gonna walk. I took a look back at the interview we’d done, looked at his convictions, and beliefs and said, ‘Yep, your right. You’d definitely kick his butt.’ And from there came a perfect ending to their story. Okay, okay, now I sound like I have a multiple personality disorder. But lets face it, all serious writers are look over our shoulders for that little white truck with the ‘special’ white jacket that make you hug yourself from time to time, right????

Tip:If you find yourself stumped on how your characters would react in a situation, try researching astrological signs. It’s a great way to discover the way people react to different situations. I don’t follow them, but I have to admit it did help discover my characters. Also, try checking out psychology books that delve into typical character traits. The book I enjoyed was, Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Dr. Laura Edelstein.

Careers, Homes and That All Important Fragrance:
To get to truly know my characters, I had to do research.
Askhow.com was a rich resource for learning about what it took to get the job my characters wanted.  Google pictures of the house they lived in, geographic maps for the town, even Craigslist was a great source for ideas on what type of car they drove. Magazines with pictures of model homes, housing floor plans online, and my all time favorite, perfume and cologne samples. Yep, nothing puts you in the frame of mind of writing your h/h’s significant other than the fragrance they wear. I must say, Polo Black, by Ralph Lauren, is sexy and smells perfect for my first male lead. I think I’ve actually fallen for Brian after smelling that scent. I can only imagine how Ebony feels every time she sees him.
So, that’s a few of the things I’ve done to help my  along my writing journey. How about you? Got any tips, tricks or things you do that you will like to share? Leave a comment!
Until next time: Write Well!!!
MJ

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My Straight Jacket is Purple…How About Yours?

***This blog was originally published  12/2011, and was my most read blog on my old blog site. I decide to dust it of, refresh it a bit and share again. After all, I’m sure all authors can relate! :)***
I know, it’s a crazy statement, but as an author we all have an element of crazy in us somewhere. How can we not? We have to balance our lives, family, and day to day responsibilities with the art of storytelling. We create lives, personalities, likes and dislikes. It’s like giving birth without the added weight gain and late night bottle feedings.
Or is it?
If they all came like this, I’d want one!
If we don’t watch it, we drink coffee, eat snacks, and are glued to our computer screens for hours on end. Thus the weight gain. Late night bottle feedings come in the form of waking up in the wee hours of the night, turning on the bedside light or computer to jot down notes or write a scene that’s been plaguing us all day.
How do we stay sane? Where do these fictional people come from? Why are we not wearing straight jackets?????
My best guess is because we’ve learned to blend in with the rest of society. Thankfully people are intrigued by our stories and want to be entertained. Thus the reason why the straight jackets stay tucked in the corner and the psychiatrist keeps the crazy pills at bay.
But, all jokes aside, it is my opinion that writing is the truest form of self-expression, of healing, and finding a way to cope with whatever ails you. Whether you write in a diary, a memoir, take the experiences of your life, or pull from those around you. No matter what avenue you decide to take, writing can help you make it through.
How well you write is another story.
I love to create the characters in my stories. As an only child I spent a lot of time playing with my baby dolls, stuffed animals, and Barbies’. Each had a name and a voice of its own. I spent hour after hour making up stories and creating adventures to entertain myself. Each story had a Happily Ever After. From time to time I would get the tape recorder (remember that ancient form of electronics?) and make cassette tapes of these little adventures to share with my parents. They of course thought they were funny. Little did I know that form of storytelling would eventually lead to me putting stories down on paper.
I still use a recorder – digital that is – and the stories are the ones from my books. No dolls allowed; I leave that to my daughter. Now the stories are not about princess riding horses and marrying the prince. Now it’s stories dealing with real life experiences. Not all are my own, but they are real, they do happen, and there is heartbreak and pain. But through it all there is happiness and love.
As I create the heroines in my stories, I’ve come to realize something. In each character – as different as they are – there is an element of me. The woman I once was, the woman I am, the woman I secretly wish I could be, and the woman I aspire to become. Multiple Personality Disorder at its best. By telling these women’s stories I’ve found a way to work through the pain in my past and find happiness in my family and the ones I hold dear.
Along the way I’ve made friends I never would have known, and gained knowledge I never would have attained. In short, I’ve not only learned how to become a better writer, I’ve learned more about me. Writing has allowed me to make a mark of my own outside of being a wife and a mother. After thirty-eight years I have finally discovered something I love, something I’m good at, and something that unless I actually lose my mind, no one can ever take away from me.
There’s not a morning I don’t get up with an idea in my head and am anxious to get down on paper. Seeing my first story, A Heart Not Easily Broken, become a published Bestselling novel on Amazon has been a mind  blowing experience. There are days when I pull up  Amazon and look at my name and cover on the screen and go, ‘Wow, did I really write that?” What’s even more mind blowing is knowing that I am on the eve of the publication of my second novel…
If someone  told me three years ago that this would happen, I’d probably laugh and say, ‘yeah, right.’ But it just goes to show that following your dreams and not being afraid to wear that straight jacket can pay off……
As long as you write a book good enough for the ‘doctors’ to read. What can they do if they’re distracted? 🙂
Can’t believe I found purple shoes to match! LOL!
To all of you who are on various stages of your writing path, I wish you the best journey. Write your heart, write what you feel, let those characters out and onto paper. Just do me a favor, watch your back. If you don’t tell the story right, the men with those special white coats just might change their mind and take you for a ride!
By the way, my straight jacket also has butterflies!
Until Next Time, Write On!
MJ