I was thinking about character description this morning. You may have noticed I’m heavily into characters at the moment, as I’m developing my entire cast for my novel in detail at the moment. Anyway, I was thinking that in order to “cement” a character in the reader’s head and make them come alive, you need to build three layers of description.
- The Physical Description
- The Shining Personality
- The Memorable Action
You can achieve any of these three steps via dialogue or narrative. The idea is to create an image in the reader’s head, then build on that by attaching a personality to it and then cement it in place by making the character do something memorable and fitting.
Here’s an example from Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. I’ve highlighted the three layers in corresponding colours:
Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.
It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.
“Potter!” said Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione’s hand had shot into the air.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Harry.
Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.
“Tut, tut — fame clearly isn’t everything.”
As you can see, the three layers don’t necessarily have to be in any set framework or order, but it does help. Here’s an example of my own:
Jemima Wattlefrock was a plump old lady with rosy cheeks, kind eyes and a way about her that reminded Nicholas of a hen, fussing about her chicks.
‘Good day, Master Fisher!’ Jemima cried. ‘Oh, it’s so won’erful to see you at last. Me an’ the animals ‘ave been so lonely ‘ere by ourselves.’
Lifting her skirts off the ground, she bustled around Nicholas, as if herding him inside the old farmhouse, and clucked madly as one of her flocks of chickens pecked excitedly around their feet, searching for nonexistent seed.
In the first part, we get a nice description of Jemima from Nicholas’ viewpoint and he compares her to a hen, making the description stick in our minds. It’s the same as when an author describes a character as “lithe, powerful and keen as a wolf stalking its prey“. Because the physical description relates to something we know from our lives (or at least have heard about/seen on TV) we can better picture that character.
In the second section, we get a glimpse of the character’s personality through dialogue. She’s obviously very friendly and excited to have a guest. From her manner of speech and what she says, we guess she lives in the countryside and might not be that intelligent. So, now we have a bit of personality attached to that original description.
Lastly, the memorable action. This is perhaps the most important step, because as we all know: “actions speak louder than words”. From one simple but memorable action, we can get a sense of a character’s attitude towards others, their motives, whether they’re trustworthy or not, etc. etc. If you’re clever as a writer, you can even foreshadow a character’s future within the story by carefully lacing their memorable action with clues.
So, you see, characters come alive better when they have layers of description, not just one flat and dull paragraph detailing their eye colour, hair length and what type of boots they’re wearing. If you haven’t already, give this technique a go when you next introduce a character and see how it works for you. If it makes it easier, highlight the three layers in different colours and you’ll soon start to notice them in most author’s work, too.
Have you got any techniques of your own for describing characters? What do you think makes a character stick in our memory?