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Do you draw your main characters so that a forensic sketch artist could put them on the cover, or do they belong to the reader?
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Having characters illustrated in a book is probably one of the touchier subjects of writing. This is due to the nature of the process. The characters illustrated are close to our hearts and that description can get locked into our minds as absolutely necessary. It takes some time and practice to get used to how this goes down. Let me unpack it for you, because I have been deeply attached and learned to let go…
The characters illustrated in my books are drawn throughout the narrative. I try to avoid info dumps. Exposition like that can really bog down the writing and annoy the reader. It’s ammature-ish. Yeah, though, there are some instances where it may be unavoidable. Do it delicately. Don’t spend a long page talking about every button and blip. The reader will get a complete illustration as they read, and you have a whole book in which to show them.
This said, don’t suddenly pull a rabbit out of the hat. For instance, Maiel keeps a number of blades tucked in her armor. We know what they’re for, and we know they’re there, so we aren’t surprised when she plucks one out to cut up a danava. Likewise for your historical pieces. Don’t suddenly drop something on a reader and risk it being unbelievable. This could unravel everything you’ve worked on. That said, if someone if one character is seducing another only to ice-pick them in the neck, I bet they hid that pick. You could say:
Donnie looked around the counter for the ice pick, but couldn’t seem to find the damn tool. He muttered to himself and continued to make the drinks using whole cubes, hoping Harriet wouldn’t mind. When he turned, Harriet stared like a cat with a mouse. It was sexy as hell, but dark, and Donnie paused a minute, unsure but that his body told him this would go real well for him.I literally just made this up for this post…to illustrate characterization.
Do you see the subtlety of the characters illustrated? Avid mystery readers will get the clue. New and moderates will understand that pick is missing, and it will be no surprise at all when Harriet pulls it out of her dress to attack Donnie later. (Can you tell I like Noir?)
You also get the idea of describing characters from this. Harriet becomes pretty clear in your mind: a Lauren Bacall, with those sculpted brows and cat eyes, the slightly grinning lips. Overdoing it would look like: Harriet stared like a cat with a mouse. Bronze hair framed an ivory heart of a face, with green eyes. Her red lips were full and matched her swank crepe dress. You could do this, if it was the first time you met Harriet. But you want to spread it out. Donnie could offer her the drink he had and then touch her bronze hair, gazing deep into her spring meadow eyes. He could kiss her burgundy lips. He could then grip her matching dress, the rough feel of the fabric…just not all at once.
I know you have the burning desire to describe your awesome character but…
Don’t rush it. Let the reader experience things in ample time. Don’t water board them with details. Am I guilty? I probably am. There are just some instances, you need that description to dump quick: a private detective eye-balling someone, might be the best example. But, then, remember, if the dame who came to his office is sitting down to ask for his help, you have a scene to unload that information through. In addition, you want to ask yourself: does it matter to the story or just my heart? Does the reader need this information to understand my character? Is it necessary they have x, y, or z to support some characterization or plot device?
I full know how it is to have a design in your heart and mind, and be unable to unlock the two. The desire to share that complete picture with the reader can be very strong, because the writer feels strongly about the details. When I get to the Aghart Chronicles of Trailokya, there are going to be some interesting descriptions I will have to wrestle out of my heart’s grip. The above questions are the best way to manage that.
Where did I learn this? I learned those questions from listening to motivational speakers on the topic of anxiety. I am not lying. This is another reason that branching out in your topics of study can be really useful to your writing. After all, what is at the heart of not being able to let go of the leather pants description you spent a paragraph on in your draft? It’s anxiety. You are concerned the reader will not see the character in the way you want them to. The problem is, you can’t really control that.
Readers are going to envision characters in the exact way that they’re going to envision your characters. You can tell them blue, but the exact hue of blue isn’t going to be yours. So, you might say, cerulean then. Still not going to be the same cerulean you see. It’s closer, but is it exact? You can’t do that. You’re asking to take control of the reader’s mind, and that is just impossible–unless you are doing a film.
Only in film and art can you render the exact image that you’re thinking onto the page of the viewer’s mind. I have commissioned drawings of Maiel and Gediel, and the artists did amazing work. They really worked with me, though. I have created my own art, but I am limited by my skill levels in the various mediums available to me, and also limited by the mediums available. Creating art is not cheap and it is not easy. I like graphics and pictures, because I am very film focused, but that isn’t always possible.
What if I just have them illustrated on the covers, the characters I really need them to see exactly as I do?
The covers of my books–you may have noticed–do not have the main characters depicted. Why? Am I avoiding giving them a visual of these amazing characters I created? Aside from the obvious uniform items of a US Federal Civil War cavalry soldier, you get no face. I even worked a little on the body shape from the photograph. This is a young man of virile build. The model was close, but not exact. His uniform was impeccable, as was his horse. His face wasn’t anywhere close to any of the men in my book. He was in his later 40s/50s, with dark short hair. Joseph is a 20-something with shaggy blond hair. Moreover, I wanted the focus on the horse. This is a horse-soldier story, and the symbolism and connection to equines was a must.
The Trailokya covers do contain a few characters, but these characters are iconic figures that need no describing: Argus (arctic wolf), Pallus (barn owl, male), and Shee (black wolf). There’s nothing to leave to the imagination about them. They are perfect specimens of their species, and nothing more must be said. Including them on the covers, hints at the presence of Maiel. Is she standing right beside you?
OP-DEC features a snippet of a scene. Each item helps to describe and symbolize characters and plot points. It’s really a fun cover, and remains my favorite. I have a print hanging in my entry hall. The designer did an amazing job taking my thoughts and turning them visual. You know what that tells me? I am a powerful story teller who can communicate a cinematic experience–at least to other artists! I know this is the case, because much of the criticism of my work has compared it to film. It only makes sense as I write screenplays as well. They’re vastly different styles, but one cannot help to inform the other. This is why film often reaches to the library shelves for material.
Hopefully this article has been some help to you as a writer and an interesting window into the process for readers. If you love reading, studying writing only opens up that experience more! Click on one of the links below to continue the hop and find out more ways to work with description…
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Stevie Turner says
Newbies often do info dumps in their characters’ conversations too. It took me a while to learn not to do that.
Captain Maiel says
I was guilty, too!
Richard Dee says
Yes, spread the reveal out. I sometimes think it can be better done by more than one of your other characters, each revealing a piece of how THEY see the person in question.
Captain Maiel says
I definitely like the idea of other characters having a say. No one gets to define themselves without others creating that definition, too. We might not like it, but it is part of who someone is.
P.J. MacLayne says
“the leather pants description you spent a paragraph on in your draft” Funny how we get stuck on different things. No leather pants for me, but my description of a redwood forest in the spring might have a few too many words
Captain Maiel says
I know. I cannot wait to see my old work, as I try to recover it for the continuing series. It’s from the 1990s, and when I started. The ideas were solid, but my execution needed a lot of polishing! LOL