Thursday, August 12, 2010

Character Attributes - So Important as Visual Cues

How important are character tags, descriptions, the stats of your characters?  Very. In a nutshell, how tall or short, how hefty or slim, whether he wears Hawaiian shirts or three-piece suits, whether he uses a cane or smokes incessantly, chews gum, or she has eyelashes longer than a crocodile's snout.

There's been a lot of talk going around that many--perhaps too many--characters found in genre mystery novels of all sub-categories and beyond are peopled by tall, handsome, virile, young men and long-legged, lovely ladies all solving crimes via big brainy heads usually below scarlet or auburn or blonde hair. Then there are those characters that defy all the 'standards' as their authors (creators) may well be far more concerned in depicting an aging character, a scarred character, a character with physical difficulties, an illness, a limp, a problem with constant pain. Or just plain age and what comes with it.

So while the hero and heroine have routinely been the beautiful people, I believe this is changing more today than ever before. As many of us authors are aging, so are our characters. What interests we have as senior citizens, we want to convey via our characters, which requires a seasoned veteran with an accumulation of scars. In fact, these scars are his or her badges and are worn as such.

Then too there is the need to make every character distinctive from the others. Each should have his or her own gait, speech patterns, non-verbal cues, psychology as well as dress and perhaps superstitions. When you introduce a character and he is chewing on an unlit pipe, wears a watch on a fob, carries a cane and dresses in suit and hat the reader gets a mental picture with each detail that surrounds a hero in your book. If another character has a wooden leg, all the better.  Then another is a young intern wtih a scalpel and a stutter.

Characters are made colorful for a reason. Two police officers sharing the same squad car should be as distinct as Laurel and Hardy. Or at least Cagney and Lacey.

Each officer depicted on my Titanic in my work in progress all wear the same uniform but they are made as different as night and day. One may be wound too tight, the other too easy-going, a third a coward. Two miners in the same coal mine again must be night and day. The items they carry on them helps, these props and tags. One has food and drink on his mind, the other home and family as they work to dig out the coal.

So while it may seem on the surface unimportant how tall or short, how slim or hefty a character is, in fact it is extremely important.  One more caveat. If you do introduce a cane or a special watch or a scalpel given to a surgery student as a gift from dear old dad, you may want to think of them as needing to be remarked upon more than once, and even make them from time to time props that will be used to save a life later in the story, possibly the one carrying the item having to use it as a weapon when back is against the wall. The old saw is that if you introduce a dog, don't forget where you last left her and do not create those sorts of convenient babies we see on TV sitcoms and soap operas as children who are only seen when the script calls for it.

Please do leave a comment!  And thanks for being here!

Rob Walker
FREE opening chapters for Children of Salem, and/or Titanic 2012 @


Franklin Beaumont said...

Hello Rob. Lots of sage advice there; especially about that misplaced dog! Thanks for sharing.

I find that when creating a character it's helpful for me to give a thought to what their parents were like. From that image, I can extrapolate a lot about who a character is.

Betty Gordon said...

Good advice, Rob. There's so much more to a character than how tall, how beautiful, etc., etc. One has to get on the 'inside' of a character to understand why he does what he does.
Thanks for your insight.
Betty Gordon

N. R. Williams said...

I am profoundly influenced by mystery since I read as much of it as I did fantasy and in the end, a really great story has a lot of internal and external mystery to solve. I find that giving enough information so the reader can fill in the appearance of the character is better than an actual artistic blow by blow of their appearance. Learning about their thought process and motivation comes with dialogue and reactions to events that happen in the story. Since my stories are character driven with good plots and not world driven I think many people across different genres will enjoy them.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

A agree with you, Rob. One thing that really bugs me is the cute, sexy, perfect protagonists with long tan legs and a coke bottle figure. Maybe it's because my legs are--actually perfect--they take me everywhere I want to go! Even if they are short thin!

Great post. Thanks for reminding us!

Sylvia Dickey Smith

A War of Her Own

Morgan Mandel said...

I can see it both ways. When you read, you enter a make believe world where you can become someone who looks better and can achieve mighty things.

On the other hand, it's also kind of nice to read books about people like me who are not as young as they used to be.

Morgan Mandel

Robert W. Walker said...

When I think of character, I think of someone with BARK on em....and on hearing that a story is character-driven, I am sure there will be many, many outward displays of said character as well as inward monologues and thught it tells me a lot about a man if he wears the uniform of his profession for instance or as when My Dr. Jessica Coran is in her scrubs with scalpel in hand. If you have never seen the spoofy horror flick called Tremors, watch it just for the use of the props from the barbed wire fence and posts to the pogo stick, basketball, and ancient Coca Cola freezer/chest in the store. Every prop focused on at the beginning of the store comes back into play later, and while it is a schlock comedy spoof horror flick, it is brilliant in its use of props. Outward props such as the hat Kevin Bacon wears or the jeans worn by the love interest, ripped off in a tangle of barbed wire late in the film are all indicative of the character from the outside to speak.
AND hey, I love all your responses here and the fact you found time to drop by....tell your friends we have fun at Acme.


Patrick Brian Miller said...

Sylvia, funny comment on perfect legs!