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Description: Working With Your Reader
by Susan J. Letham
One hallmark of great writing is that it creates an
relationship between writer and reader. Your aim isn't
to tell the reader a story, but to share it with her, draw
her in, allow her to use her own imagination as well as
yours. By helping your reader co-create her experience you
hook her and keep her turning pages.
So, how do you go about getting your reader to work with
this way? You do it by mapping main points and leaving
for the reader to fill in the blanks, by drawing the
and handing your reader a box of crayons.
The easiest way to start putting this into practice is in
connection with characterization.
Co-creation and Characterization
Stories are first and foremost about people. More
stories deal with people who interact in certain ways with
other people and situations.
Let's look to life to see what this means for your
Maybe you have a new writer in your circle, or your kid
a new teacher, or your partner a new boss. Once you've got
past the names, what do you want to know about these
You probably want to know what they are like--not just
they look like, but the kind of people they are. You want
orientation so you know what to expect. You want to be
to predict their actions, so you can tailor your responses
That's the way your reader feels when she first walks into
your story. She's looking for orientation so she can
understand the events about to unfold. She wants to know
what the characters are like so she can predict how
react in the story situations before you affirm her
by telling her. By giving your reader the information she
wants, you make it easy for her to relax and enjoy the
What does your reader need to know if she's to co-create
your characters? Let's look and see how you can draw that
outline for your reader to color in.
Focus on Qualities
Writers often introduce story characters through physical
description. That's helpful if appearance is a central
but, as in real life, looks seldom mean much in connection
with personality. An approach that describes traits is
Instead of first describing what your character looks
answer the "What's she like?" or the "What
kind of person is
she?" question instead.
The best way to learn this strategy is to try it out. Here
are some examples to start you off. Choose a description
that appeals to you and make notes about the character
comes to mind:
S/he's the kind of person who'd...:
- keep piranhas.
- take walks in a graveyard.
- read Rilke.
- marry a senator.
- wear a pocket protector.
- buy photo wallpaper.
- picket "Victoria's Secret."
- love to be in "Big Brother."
- make Machiavelli quake.
Note that the statements illustrate a 'type' and don't
that the character actually does the things mentioned,
that she might.
Describe the character's appearance, what she does for a
living, her home, her idea of a good night out.
Write a scene that illustrates how your character lives
characteristic. How does a woman who'd make Machiavelli
quake act in the office? What kind of office? What kind of
character would she need as a lover, partner, business
associate, adversary, friend?
How did you do?
Did you see images in your mind? I'd be extremely
if you didn't see vivid images in response to the
The point is that your reader, too, will start to color in
the outline you give her.
Your reader will work with you and save you the trouble of
telling her absolutely everything. Once you've established
that "Sarah is the kind of woman who'd buy photo
your reader won't bat an eyelid when Sarah also buys a
pink stretch mini-skirt to wear to the church dance.
A good way to practice this skill is to characterize your
family and friends.
If you had to describe the personalities of people you
well to a stranger, how would you make them sound
by using vivid images?
Try it out:
- My partner is the kind of person who'd...
- My daughter is the kind of person who'd...
- My son is the kind of person who'd...
- My boss is the kind of person who'd...
- My teacher is the kind of person who'd...
- My neighbor is the kind of person who'd...
Character Creation Technique
Work this approach into your stories. Hook your readers by
introducing characteristics before you mention outward
appearance. Readers will want to read on and learn what
mean by your enigmatic character statement.
Compare these examples:
"Think we got ourselves a
cult or something?"
A cult? I looked at Bruce. He
must be kidding,
I thought, but the look on his
seem to say so. He stood there,
and 200-pounds of him, running a
hand over his
blond crewcut, clearly waiting
for me to give
him an answer.
Does it matter what Bruce looks like at this point? Does
add to our image and understanding of the kind of person
is? Does it tell us about the relationship between the POV
character and Bruce?
"Think we got ourselves a
cult or something?"
A cult? I gave Bruce a 'don't be
The only man I knew who openly
tabloids, he'd been spouting
aliens and government
conspiracies since the day I took
office. (Kate Gerard)
By telling us about Bruce's reading habits and the effects
they have, the author of this second example paints a
picture of his character and attitude. The example shows
the character relate to each other.
Take some of your writing and practice this technique by
rewriting the character introductions. Exactly how you
things will depend on the POV you're using. If you're
third person, you can have the narrator make the
If you're using a limited POV, you can put the statement
into the limited character's thoughts. You can use
to have a character make the statement out loud.
until you feel you have something that works in each case.
Your readers will love it!
© 2002, Susan J. Letham
Susan J. Letham is a British writer, multimedia author,
Creative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write and sign
for quality writing classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching.
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