Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Characters Coming to Life

by Megan Oliphant

So right now it's about 2:50 am, and I just got home from seeing the Twilight Trilogy at our local theater with my 14 year old daughter. (So I apologize profusely if this is incoherent.)

It was fascinating for many reasons, but what I enjoyed most was people watching (or people listening, since we were in a darkened theater.) Our crowd was definitely "Team Jacob", with lots of cat calls, whistles, and various other outbursts of approval every time he came on scene. Especially with his shirt off.

It made me wonder about Jacob as a character, and what made him speak so clearly and so well to so many. Or Edward, for that matter. Or Harry Potter, or Elizabeth Bennet. All these characters are from a book, but books that are so well known, so beloved, that somebody had to make a movie about it. Had to visually realize what millions of people pictured in their heads.

As a writer, that's what I want for my characters. I want them to be as real to others as they are to me in my head. When I first started writing, I thought that meant describing their physical appearance, so the reader could see dark hair, blue eyes, and glasses on an oval shaped face above a perfect male body. Or whatever. It took me a long time to understand that no, I didn't need to create an actual picture with words, I needed to leave an impression strong enough that the image could carry the reader through the scene, or chapter, or the entire book. I struggle with this in the visual arts, too, trying to be so accurate that when all that's really needed is a hint of color or highlight.

That's the type of thing we have to practice as writers. Creating hints and highlights, not a realistic photograph. We have to leave enough up to the reader's imagination that they want to keep reading because the story and characters have become their own. We as the authors have slipped into the background and let them step into the story.

Think about that this week as you work on your own writing. Are you adding enough to be clear, but not so much the reader is bogged down with explanation? Do you trust the reader enough to "get it" or are you so preoccupied with creating the "perfect picture", that you bore them?

Buon Lavoro!


  1. Yes!!! I completely agree! I was just reading a book this week and as I tried to put my finger on why I was so involved with the main character (when so far he wasn't all that loveable) it was because I felt like I knew him. There was virtually no physical description to speak of- it was primarily an in-depth look into his head. It's funny how even though you might not necessarily like a character, you can still root for them because they feel like someone you know, and eventually they can become like a friend. After I realized that I made the same mental note that you did- build the character naturally, get the reader involved in him, whether we like him or not!

  2. Megan, I agree. Sometimes less is more. Descriptions are great as long as they leave room for the reader's imagination. Hope you can get some sleep today.

  3. Megan--you know, I used to bog my readers down with too much detail on setting. It was vivid and way descriptive. Then I started learning about info dumping and all that stuff.

    Now I have a bit of a time trying to insert setting detail--giving the reader a dim sense of setting.

    The pendulum sways to the other side. Now for it to settle and it becomes a great balance of not too much and not too little.


  4. I think it's the feeling of the character more than anything else. I don't describe people in too much detail, I want the reader to use their brain a little for that. What I do want, is for people to care what happens to the people I write about.

  5. I love this post! I couldn't agree with you more.

  6. Great post! I love great characters that stick with me long after I've finished the book. I try to do that in my own writing. I get so involved with my characters, that I hope people see them the same way I do.

  7. Characters is a plot can be like love scenes in a movie...I prefer the kind where they guy and girl look longingly into one another's eyes, embrace, and then scene cuts to ocean or fireplace or whatever....I don't need to see on the screen naked bodies rolicking. My imagine can conjur that up quite nicely, thank you. I PREFER to be allowed to fill in the details according to my own imagination. Same thing goes with a lot of the books I read. My husband likes Stuart Woods novels with the character Stone Barrington. I can't read the stuff because I get too annoyed by the frequent descriptions of what he is wearing. I always want to scream GIVE IT A REST and get on with the story! But that's just me.



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