Hello readers, and welcome back after an—at least here—unexpectedly chilly weekend! I hope you stayed warm and toasty! Here the temperature dropped down into the freezing range, which means my writing habits have officially shifted from shorts and t-shirts to hoodies and socks. Or some combination thereof.
News? Nope, I haven’t got any that I can think of not covered in that last news post I made. Other than the usual pre-election griping of “Why does heavy political activity get in the way of people reading and buying books?”
Seriously, I do not understand this one. Does an election have the same effect on the video game industry? Does Netflix see less streaming during an election cycle? Or is it just books that get hit by this strange oddity?
And furthermore, why? Stress overload? Do people associate reading with political activism? Or to the contrary, as a form of anti-politicking? Or does it stem from a general anti-intellectualism bent in the United States, where a common rebuttal in political disagreements is sometimes sadly “Yeah, well you read to much?”
I wish I were kidding about that last one.
Ah well, at this point we’ve moved into me musing on questions for which I have no answers. Let’s just leave it that I firmly believe that if you’re thinking about voting for someone, reading about them and their policies is a good start. And that I’m still perplexed as to why elections impact book sales so strongly in a negative manner.
Anyway … let’s move on, shall we? Today’s topic is … Well, I’d say it’s one of the hardest things for authors of all experience levels to get a handle on. The book I started last night, for example, quite literally runs into a problem with our topic in the opening chapters.
In fact, a lot of books do. And short stories. And everything in between. Because in some odd way, describing our characters—in a smooth, worked in way that seems natural—seems to be one of the hardest challenges many authors face.
Let’s start by addressing the titular problem, and by far the most common issue that crops up when presenting a character: The info-dump. Most of us have read a book that does this. In fact, I’m fairly certain that if you set ten random books in front of any reader, you’d find that at least a decent number of them suffered from this very issue.
So yes, you’ve probably run into this. You’re in the opening chapter of a new book, and if it’s first person, you might get something like this:
I’ve always been tall for my size. Tall and lanky. Almost stretched. Which would be nice if the rest of me had caught up. My long brown hair was frizzy and never as long as I wanted it, and was too similar in shade to my brown eyes. Having freckles that stood out against my pale skin just made it worse.
Yeah … we’ve all come across something like that. And in fairness, it’s not terrible. It could be much worse, certainly. Full of metaphorical comparisons, for example. Or unneeded specificity, such as “I’d always felt my left nostril was too wide.”
But the problem with this kind of lump dump of what a character looks like is that it’s unwieldly. What we have above kind of works if we have say, a young teen who’s very self-conscious about how they look. At least then there’d be an excuse to drop this kind of sudden examination of their physical looks into the story.
But a lot of stories dive into something like this without any sort of reasoning or preamble outside of “Well, the reader needs to know what the character looks like.” Which … is fair. As readers, we want to know how to envision whatever character we’re reading about. At the same time, however, suddenly dropping what a character looks like into the middle of an in-progress scene is, well, awkward. Like a speed-bump in a smooth road.
Oh, and side note. Despite the above example being in first-person, this happens in third person a lot as well. Scene, setting, and boom, character description.
Okay, so how do we avoid just making this an exposition bomb of “Oh, and by the way, here’s what my character looks like?” Well, first things first, do not go all the way in the other direction with it. And by that I mean do not simply decide to never describe the character at all.
The book I started last night makes that mistake. It has avoided any and all description of the protagonist. It’s done this so well, in fact, that the only thing I’ve learned about them is that they decided to wear an expensive dress and stiletto heels to a dinner in the fourth chapter. Since no one has yet made a single inference to their gender (though I know the gender of those around them) I’m mostly sure they’re a woman … but not positive. (Update edit: Chapter 5 finally had someone address them as “Miss” and it was confirmed)
Yes, this has made the book a bit difficult to figure out at times. They’re an archeologist of sorts, and so they talk about tight spaces … but I have no frame of reference. They talk about getting dirty shifting through old ruins, but I don’t know who to picture the dirt on. In fact, in an interesting moment of oddity, because they’ve commented on their co-worker’s hair color, and on the appearance of a friend, I know more about what those characters look like than the protagonist.
Now, there are certainly books that make their characters as undeveloped as possible in order to let the reader drop themselves into the role more fully, but I don’t think that was the intent here. Rather, it just feels like every time the author could have told us a little bit about the protagonist, they were worried about that road bump, and so darted away to move on with the story.
This approach—giving nothing—and its inverse—giving everything at once—are both equally odd to a reader. Giving everything at once is a bit like going down a nice road and hitting a sudden, very over-emphasized speedbump with a number of signs all around it you must navigate. But on the other hand, giving nothing at all is like going down that same street in an invisible car.
Both make you aware of the “vehicle” you’re using to traverse the story, and both in different ways, but either is a bit jarring.
So. We don’t want to drop everything on our reader at once. And we also don’t want to starve them for information. So how do we build a character in our reader’s mind in way that’s smooth but still allows them to visualize who they are?
First, you prioritize. If you’re not going to drop everything at once, then what you deliver to the reader first takes on a good amount of importance. So what’s going to important for your reader to build a mental image first? Gender? Height? Hair color? What should they know first, before everything else?
Second, we work that into the narrative. For example, if we’ve decided that the first thing our reader should know about our protagonist is that they are a “he,” then we could find a way so that this smoothly comes up in a story. This is pretty easy in third person (he took the steps two at a time), but in first person stories you may notice a number of authors have scenes just to be able to accomplish this, such as a protagonist ordering coffee and being referred to as “sir” or “miss.”
Third, we space these descriptions out. We introduce them as necessary, and in ways that make sense to the plot, rather than ways that exist only to draw attention. For example, we can do double-duty with the line about the character taking the steps in the paragraph above. “He took the steps two at a time, each pair more of a single step to his long stride.” That’s evocative, and still moves things forward, but we also learn that this protagonist has a long stride, and can infer that he’s probably taller than the average person.
Colony does this in its opening chapters. We have one protagonist, Jake, tailing a target, and while noting that the man is “average” in height compared to the two bodyguards he’s employed, also looks up at the three of them. Which shows the reader that this protagonist is shorter than average. Not by much, it’s later clarified, but a little.
Again, it’s spaced out across the opening introduction of each character so that bit by bit, we see more of them. A good analogy for this process is the way old pictures used to download from the net (before everything was much quicker). The first “pass” you’d load was the basics, and you’d see color and a shape. Then, with each successive “tick” of data, the image would grow more detailed, picking up more information until you could see that you’d spent the last five minutes downloading the wrong image for your report and needed to click the other one.
Point being, as authors and creators we can “resolve” the image of our character in the same manner. Start with our specifics. Then ease into more detail over the course of the introduction to get the vital details across.
Now, with this spacing things out, a warning. It’s very possible to go too far, and like I mentioned above, not give enough detail quickly enough. This matters especially with the high-priority details. For example, if our protagonist is missing a hand, this detail should be made clear to our readers before our protagonist does anything that would cause our reader to visualize them with two hands. For example, if the story starts during a chase of some kind and we have all kinds of action going on, and then only partway through do we let the reader know “Oh, by the way, this character you’ve been envisioning doing all this stuff? Only one hand.” Unless we have been quite precise with our earlier descriptions of action (and, in fairness, this is quite doable, but you have to be aware of it), our readers will have expected the character to have two hands.
In fact, I recall a story told by another author—and recognize this is loose and second hand—who went through several chapters of a book before the book suddenly made mention of the key fact that the protagonist it had been following only had one leg. No clues, no details that would have made this obvious (such as adjusting a prosthetic, hearing the impact be different), nothing. Just, as I recall them putting it, “Oh, I’m five chapters in and this character only has one leg. Did not know that!”
So yes, space things out … but not so much that our reader builds and entirely different image of the character in the meantime.
Now, fourth bit here: Use the scene to show description. This one is a bit of “tying it into the narrative” and a bit of “space it out,” but also just “show.”
Use what you’ve got to work in details! Is it cold out? “Agdas rubbed a hand across his beard, brushing frost out of the reddish hairs.” Is she a cyborg? “She tapped the door controls, her synthetic fingertips clicking against the hard plastic.” Are they tall? “The ceiling was low, and Saphras hunched slightly out of habit, just in case of a low-hanging light.”
Little details like this build scene and character, and if scattered all across the opening chapters of your work, will help your reader build a picture in their head of what your protagonists look like.
And you can keep using details like that to reinforce things as well! This produces continuity with the reader and may remind them of key important details as the story moves on.
Now, before we wrap up here, there are two more things I want to touch on. The first is the infamous mirror sequence. You’ve seen this in books and stories before. The author wants to introduce the character quickly? Why not have them pass by a mirror?
Well, first of all, this is a clear speed-bump. As well you’d be amazed at the contrivances authors have gone through to get a “mirror,” from a random mirror in a living room or hallway to staring at their reflection in water.
Look, there are better ways to do this. Sometimes, rarely, a mirror approach will be natural. The titular character in Axtara – Banking and Finance, for example, notes with amusement her old mirror from when she was young in the opening chapter. However, the story then subverts the trope by having her only note that she’d spent many hours when young preening herself in front of it until her green scales shone (recall that she is a dragon). Just the one detail, and as a memory, rather than a look into the mirror.
But one really good way to use the “mirror” approach? Don’t use a mirror, but a comparison. Have a character observe another, and in describing elements of that character, note where they themselves differ. Since comparison is a very natural reaction, using another character to learn more about our protagonist is a fairly natural exploration of how human beings think. Done well, you can drop a lot of information about a protagonist without the reader even realizing what you’ve done!
Now, that leaves one last thing to address. An elephant in the room, almost. A topic that I only need to bring up because of how poorly it’s been handled before.
“Race,” IE ethnic background.
Now, I’m going to say this first and foremost. Do NOT venture into stereotyping to try and get a character’s ethnicity across. Sands and Storms is that a bad idea. Worse, I’ve seen people espouse it. One particular forum, and I am not making this up, in declaring that authors needed an effective way to let readers know the “race” of every character, came up with a freaking list of “attributes” like “good at math” to make it easier to identify, as they put it, “people of color” in books and stories.
DO. NOT. DO. THAT.
Look, someone’s ethnic and cultural background is important to them. But it’s so much more than a stereotype. Do not dive into a stereotype.
Writing about someone’s ethnicity is, in a way, a lot like writing about someone’s gender. Remember this now kind of famous post I did on writing the opposite gender? Where I stated that no one save a crazy person wakes up and thinks “Using my bathroom … LIKE A WOMAN!” “Eating eggs for breakfast … LIKE A MAN!” “Driving my car to work … LIKE A [Insert whatever gender here]!” Remember that?
Ethnic background is kind of similar, save under conditions where it would come to the forefront. Whether or not those conditions, such as forms of cultural racism, are on display in your setting is up to you. If they are, then you have a legitimate reason for such thoughts to come to the forefront. If not …?
Think about the character, and what they find important.
For a moment, and as an example of a setting where it isn’t as much, let’s look at Jungle. In Jungle the characters are more concerned about what planet a person is from, because that will give clues as to their culture (and how to read it), than the color of someone’s skin (save a few places on Earth where it’s still a really big deal). Because the world of Jungle and Colony is so interwoven, the only clue anyone really gets about the ethnic background of some characters is in their name, but even then that sometimes flies completely off, as for example in Jungle we meet an aeronautics tech who has the family name of Fendalyamious, a name chosen by her great-grandfather to signify his new start as one of the first citizens of Mars, and the protagonist immediately asks her about it. Culture, and the planet, city, or society someone is from, is king. Not ethnicity. Things have intermixed.
Point being every setting and character will be different in this regard. The single, biggest mistake I’ve seen with regards to identifying any sort of ethnicity in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, especially the latter, is in assigning modern, topical stereotypes to identifying cultures or ethnicities that are and should clearly not be utilized in such a setting.
If you’re writing a modern setting, in our world, then? Carefully. That’s all I can really say. Decide how important it will be to your characters, and work from there. Treat the subject with respect. Do some research if you want to have a character that’s a member of a culture or group! Make them accurate!
And again, don’t jump to stereotypes.
Alright, so: When describing a character for the first time, here’s what you want to do. First, prioritize what the reader needs to know first, then second, then third. Second, work that information into the narrative. Third, give it some space rather than dropping it all at once. Let it breathe a little. Fourth, try to let the scene show the description, rather than simply telling the reader.
Oh, and avoid the mirror.
Good luck. Now get writing!
Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters:
Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, and Thomas!
Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and the Being a Better Writer articles coming!
You can also share this post (and others) online or via social media!