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Character Description: Working With Your Reader

by Susan J. Letham



One hallmark of great writing is that it creates an intimate
relationship between writer and reader. Your aim isn't just
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 you
this way? You do it by mapping main points and leaving space
for the reader to fill in the blanks, by drawing the outline
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 precisely,
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 writing.

Maybe you have a new writer in your circle, or your kid has
a new teacher, or your partner a new boss. Once you've got
past the names, what do you want to know about these people?

You probably want to know what they are like--not just what
they look like, but the kind of people they are. You want
orientation so you know what to expect. You want to be able
to predict their actions, so you can tailor your responses
to fit.

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 they'll
react in the story situations before you affirm her guesses
by telling her. By giving your reader the information she
wants, you make it easy for her to relax and enjoy the ride.

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 theme
but, as in real life, looks seldom mean much in connection
with personality. An approach that describes traits is more

Instead of first describing what your character looks like,
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 that
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 mean
that the character actually does the things mentioned, only
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 the
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 surprised
if you didn't see vivid images in response to the activity.
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 wallpaper,"
your reader won't bat an eyelid when Sarah also buys a baby
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 know
well to a stranger, how would you make them sound intriguing
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 you
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 face didn't
     seem to say so. He stood there, all five-eight
     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 it
add to our image and understanding of the kind of person he
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 stupid' glare.
     The only man I knew who openly read supermarket
     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 clear
picture of his character and attitude. The example shows how
the character relate to each other.


Take some of your writing and practice this technique by
rewriting the character introductions. Exactly how you word
things will depend on the POV you're using. If you're using
third person, you can have the narrator make the statement.
If you're using a limited POV, you can put the statement
into the limited character's thoughts. You can use dialogue
to have a character make the statement out loud. Experiment
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, and
Creative Writing lecturer. Visit Inspired2Write and sign up
for quality writing classes and competent 1-on-1 coaching.
Subscribe to Inspired2Write Newsletter (published monthly)

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