Thursday, February 24, 2011

Giving Character to your Character

Giving your characters, character.
Sounds simple enough, right? But have you ever read a book that by the end, the only thing you really remember about the main characters is their names? Heck, sometimes I can’t even remember that!

So what is it about some stories that really draw you in? Plot? Sure. A good plot will get your attention. But if the characters lack any individuality or detail, can the plot still give the book what it needs to make it stick with you a while after you’ve reached THE END?

On the flipside of things, great character development and with a terrible plot will likely turn you off as well. But that’s a post for another time. Today I want to focus on some of the basics of building characters that your readers can love.

Let’s focus on the physical aspects of your character. Easy enough. So let’s say I’m writing a romance novel and my character descriptions go as follows:

He was tall, handsome, and had an air about him that drew women like moths to a flame.  

She was shapely and beautiful; he wanted her from the start.

I suppose that’s enough to give the reader a fair description.  At this point, they’re likely picturing what those descriptions mean in their minds. Every reader will picture something different. Are these characters appealing? Sure, the reader is imagining them how they want. Are they interesting? Not really. They sound like every other character in every other romance book you pick up. So what would make them stand out? Make the envision exactly how the character looks in your (the author’s) eyes?

Complexion: What does their skin look like? Is it smooth? Does the man have a beard? Stubble? Are her cheeks rosy? Sallow? Like porcelain?

What about color? Does she have olive colored skin? Pale? Ivory? Is he tanned? Translucent?

How about flaws? Come of folks, not everybody is perfect. In fact, after reading so many books about “perfect” characters, they kinda get boring. Characters need flaws, whether physical or emotional, to give them depth. So how about a scar? Or maybe rough skin? Acne scars (don’t forget, you have to describe your bad guys/girls as well). Birthmark?

Eyes: Color is usually a given. Most authors name eye color at some point in the story. As a personal opinion, earlier is better than later. The longer you delay giving readers a detailed description, the more they’re going to envision the characters how they want. If halfway through the book they’ve decided the man has shoulder length, brown hair and dark eyes (because the cover depicts him as such and we all know covers aren’t always accurate to a tee. Unless Trace designs it, then it’s going to be perfect!), then you announce he has short dark blonde hair and green eyes, your reader is likely going to feel like you’ve just pulled the rug out from under them. The hero is going to feel like a stranger.

So let’s discuss eyes. Aside from color, what else? What about shape? Are they almond? Cat-like? Thin? Rounded? Are they rimmed with dark lashes? Hooded? Are there bags under their eyes? Sometimes the first glimpse at the character isn’t always when he/she is at their best.

Nose: What kind of nose does the hero/heroine have? Thin? Narrow? Flared? Slightly crooked? Strong? Grecian? Wide? You might even get more detailed and describe the bridge separately from the nostrils.

Lips: Ahhh… One of our favorite parts of the face. But what kind of lips do our characters have? Generous? Full? Thin upper lip and full bottom? Pouty? Heart-shaped. Wide? Small? Don’t forget lips have color as well. Some are beige; some are pink, red, brown, gray, purple (depending upon the scene). You wouldn’t have a character who’s just fallen into an icy river emerge with red lips and rosy cheek. That would make no sense what so ever. They’re likely going to have a gray or ashen skin color, and purple lips.

Hair: Again, most authors as some point define their character hair color. But what about the texture? Is it coarse, silky soft? Thin? Thick? Curly? Straight? Long? Short? Does it hang in their eyes? Curl around their temples? I recently read a series of books by Marisa Chenery called Ra’s Chosen (5 books in all). In each one, she describes her characters fairly enough. But one character really stands out to me. Why? Because his hair is always in his eyes, like he’s hiding something. She still hasn’t defined what and I’m dying to know. Hopefully she’s working on book 6 and my curiosity will be satisfied. Anyway, my point being, sometimes even just their hair can be a defining characteristic that gives them character.

Body Type: *rubbing hands together* The fun stuff. Alright, I gotta admit, I won’t be as turned on by a hero with a beer belly and scrawny legs. Yes, I want the Adonis. But, that’s not to say he has to be perfect or that if he is, you can skimp on his description. What is it about him that makes him perfect? Does he have mile-wide shoulders? An expanse of chest sprinkled with curling wisps of dark hair (see, hair applied here too!). Do his pecs dance as he flexes those mounds of man flesh? Don’t forget to make him proportioned.  He can’t be ripped with bulging muscles on top, then have nice legs and a trim waist below. Huh? I’m envisioning Johnny Bravo here (cartoon character for anyone who doesn’t know). If he’s lean, make him lean all over. Maybe he’s not a hunk of stud-muscle with bulges threatening to bust through is clothes. Maybe he’s just fit and trim. That’s okay, just describe him in a manner that makes him sound fit and trim.

Body Parts: I shudder to dive in to this one. Depending on where you mind is, this has many options. Let’s start with the heroine. Let’s face it, not all of us are gifted with big bazongas.  Some of us have beestings, other have watermelons. Just make it fit. Don’t describe your heroine as 5 foot nothing, 100 pounds, and packing cantaloupes. She’s gonna need a wheelbarrow as well. That or major back surgery. Yes, some little women are Baywatch babe material, but make it believable.  What about those heroes? Are they all massively endowed? Please. Let’s be realistic. If every guy I read about has the potential to render his female counterpart unable to walk, then I’m gonna get bored. As with breasts, there’s a difference between being nicely sized and “wanting to run the other direction” sized. I suppose the exception would be if that were your male character’s main dilemma.  Maybe he needs to find him an Amazon woman who can handle him. Okay, getting off tract here!  

For any character, male or female, hero/heroine, bad guy/girl, just start at the top and work your way down, hitting on the things that you want the reader to zero in on, the things that make the character who they are.  The things that give him/her character.

Before I end here, let’s revisit those two descriptions I gave earlier:

He was tall, handsome, and had an air about him that drew women like moths to a flame.  

She was shapely and beautiful; he wanted her from the start.

Taking my own suggestions to heart, I think I can do a little better:
Shannon’s perusing gaze zeroed in on the man entering the bar. Were he any taller, he’d have had to duck to cross the threshold.  His black hair swept back from his face in a crest and hung to his broad shoulders in large waves, its color so pure it looked almost blue in the twinkling disco lights. His heavy brow and hooded eyes gave her a sense of unease. He looked almost predatory as he scanned the room.

When he suddenly looked over at her and their eyes met, she felt an overwhelming urge to run across the floor and throw herself at his feet. He had a virile air about him that undoubtedly drew women like moths to a flame. Having already experienced the unpleasant feeling of being burned by one handsome man, Shannon quickly looked away. She had no desire to be hurt again.

After settling his large frame in a vacant chair, Keith scanned the other tables, looking for a donor. Several days had passed since he’d fed, he had to find one tonight. His stomach growled in agreement.  

He settled on a slim blonde at the bar. Her long golden locks hung down her slender back in ringlet curls, almost childlike in appearance. His investigation lingered on the exposed flesh above the low waistband of her jeans. Its smooth ivory texture looked creamy and flawless, like freshly poured buttermilk. He wondered if it felt as soft as it appeared.

 They locked gazes and his breath hitched in his chest. Her cat-like green eyes sparkled with attraction before she dropped attention to the drink in his hand. He caught the hint of a faint blush on her delicate cheeks before she looked away. He wanted her; she was perfect.

Ta da! Much better. Hey, I might just keep that and use it in a book! If anyone has any input/suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Shannon Leigh
“Giving readers the O in their erOtica”



Anthology Authors said...

I think there's a fine line between two much description and not enough. You definitely have to paint a picture or they aren't interesting enough to keep my attention, but I don't want a grocery list of their attributes either. It drives me nuts as an editor, and reader, when an author says, "she wore a skin tight pair of jeans" or "her hair was the color of beechnut." When I see something like that, I want to reach out and strangle the author, especially if I've just read a beautiful description of a room I don't care much about. (g)

Here's an example from a humorous piece I wrote years ago:

I passed through the living room. My sister slept on the couch, a slight smile on her lips, her sable hair a dark cloud against the white fabric. Had she been privy to my thoughts, she’d frown. Oh, sissy, you will soon be alone with the yammering twins, and I would have a king-sized bed all to myself. Once more, I contained the chuckle that threatened to bubble forth. I didn’t stop to stare or contemplate my victory, but continued across the cool bamboo floors, past the twins snoring softly in the bed (even in their sleep, silence eluded them), and into the bathroom. Bamboo floors gave way to white marble tile. My suit hung on hooks next to my sister’s. Neatly folded white towels rested on the white marble countertop. Both suits were dry and ready to wear. I peed, washed my hands, and slipped mine on. With a few deft movements, I braided my shoulder-length hair. Ready to go, I stopped and soaked Cassandra’s bathing suit in water, then hung it back up. Nothing worse than putting on a damp bathing suit, no matter how warm the temperature. I grinned. Yeah, payback was a bitch. And I had a lot to pay her back for…one little thing at a time.

On the way out, I grabbed my goggles. No sense in irritating my eyes with the salt water. When I returned, his jaw nearly dropped to the floor. Not an uncommon occurrence. Six feet of woman who trained for triathlons in a bikini could overwhelm a person.

Anthology Authors said...

Oh, I also want to see character in a description. So, when you mix it with action, like you did and add the characters reaction, it keeps me engaged. :)

Anonymous said...

Well written post and great advice.