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Writing Tips for Fiction Writers!
   
   

   






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  Developing Character Traits
Part Two - Physical Attributes

by Tina Morgan


Creating characters requires a little thought and time to get just the right 'person' for your story. First, you should consider why the character looks the way they do. Second, you need to consider when and how you're going to tell your reader what your character looks like.

Beauty or Beast?

A common mistake many writers make is not putting enough thought into their characters' physical traits. Because we are visual creatures, we tend to create characters we would find physically attractive. Our good characters tend to be beautiful and our bad characters end up ugly or scarred.

The strapping, tall man with intense eyes and biceps to melt for isn't limited to romance novels, nor is the buxom, long-legged blonde confined to the pages of action-adventure or thrillers. 'Fabio' clones fill the romance shelves and svelte sirens grace the shelves from science fiction to women's fiction. How many heroines wear anything larger than a size six?

To a degree, this is understandable. Many of us read or write to escape the pressures of everyday life. We want to imagine ourselves as more beautiful and alluring and our love interests as the epitome of sexuality. Those are generalizations but they illustrate the point. We don't want to dream about being ugly. We want to step outside our mundane world, even if our story is set right in our own present day home town.

Take a look around you. How many truly physically beautiful people do you see every day? How often do you encounter that super model or martial arts expert? I'm guessing not very often unless you live in Hollywood or New York City (feel free to insert the film capital of your country if you live outside the US.)

Some stories are going to demand more exotic characters than others. If your protagonist needs to be able to perform feats of strength and endurance then he/she can't be an out of shape couch potato. But do you need someone with a "perfect" body? Do they need to be so handsome that men/women melt when they smile and want to have sex with them where they stand? Is making your character physically attractive going to distract your reader from an underdeveloped personality? Maybe in face-to-face meetings where pheromones can play a role but not on the written page.

Take the time to delve into your protagonist and antagonist's past. Have they lived a sheltered life? Where they ever injured? Bitten by an animal? Do they walk with a limp from a skiing or biking accident? Do they wear glasses? Are they too thin? Too heavy? Out of shape? Super toned but with short legs and a long waist so he/she is out of proportion? Take time to look at the wide variety of people around you. What do you see? How can you use what you see?

Opposites Attract

One of the most interesting (and memorable) characters I've ever read is Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkorsigan. Miles was exposed to life-threatening toxins while still in his mother's womb and only the advanced science of Bujold's galaxy was able to save him. As a result of the poisons racing through his developing body, Miles is left with very brittle bones and only reaches the height of a pre-teen. Living on a world that fears mutations due to a history of radiation problems, Miles must prove himself to everyone. Including himself. He does a good job of it.

Bujold creates characters that jump off the page but few of them are the model of physical perfection. For this reason, her characters are more endearing - because of their differences, not in spite of them.

Our editor, Lee, has a penchant for creating opposite-stereotypes in her characters. Her "bad guy" is stunningly good-looking, and yet he is a truly nasty piece of work. He is cold, callous, vicious and selfish. But he looks great! On the other hand, her "good guy" is homely, but sweet. He has a warm personality that you just can't help liking. This role-reversal is effective, because the reader is forced to identify with the characters actions and deeds, rather than the looks they do or don't have.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

A common trick employed by newer writers is to have a character stare into a mirror, so the reader can 'see' what the character is seeing. This approach often feels contrived and does not help the reader to 'see' your character at all.

You've made up your mind that the male lead of your story is average height, has brown eyes and caramel colored skin. He's getting older, has thinning hair and a tiny bit of fat sticking out beyond his belt. He has wide shoulders and narrow hips. He's a bit bowlegged like he's been riding too many horses even though he's never set foot outside the city limits. Now, how do you describe him in your story?

Bob was rapidly approaching middle age. His brown eyes didn't focus as well as they used to and he was wearing reading glasses as he scanned the paper. His wide shoulders jutted beyond what was considered the proper amount of "personal" space at the diner counter. His closely cropped brown hair was thinning a bit on the top.

No.

Age
Eye color
Frame
Hair color and type


Descriptions that read like grocery lists are boring. And what if your story is in first person? How would you start then?

My name is Bob, I'm a 49 year old accountant with thinning hair and reading glasses. I weigh 195 which is a bit much for my 5'8" frame. Not that I'm fat mind you, just a little out of shape.

Again we have a list.

Age
Hair type
Glasses
Weight
Body condition.


So when does your character introduce him/herself? Do they walk into the bathroom and start listing their features in the mirror? This is a commonly overused ploy. (the same goes for still water in lakes, ponds and puddles. Also reflections in the bottom of cooking utensils.)

Working the description slowly into the story doesn't disrupt the flow as much as the grocery list approach does. It allows for the reader to learn about your character as they go. The trick is to keep the reader interested in your characters and how they cope with the stories conflict. The reader doesn't really need an in-depth description to get a feel for your character. They don't need to know every wrinkle on the character's face. It's more fun to read about the wrinkles in their personality.

Imagination

I recently read the Legends of Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (written by Frank Herbert's son, Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson). Throughout the entire book I found only a few minor references to physical traits. The looks of almost the entire cast are left completely to the reader's imagination. I consulted a friend after I had finished reading, and learned that she had pictured the "lead" character, Xavier Harkkonen, very differently to the way I had. We were told he is 'tall'. We were told he 'held himself with regal poise'. But really, no more is mentioned about Xavier's attributes. For this reason, the reader is forced to accept the character based solely upon his acts and thoughts, rather than his "pretty" good looks. Personally, I found this approach to be highly effective in gaining reader empathy. I really wanted Xavier to win against the agent of the dreaded thinking machines, Vorian Atreides.

Final Word

Take some time to discover a little about your character's personality before fitting a physical frame to him. And remember - true beauty comes from within!



Copyright 2003 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved

 

 

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