I’m not talking about the character looking in the mirror describing herself idea. Character description is more than hair and skin color, eye color, body shape, etc. It’s also about attitude and personality. It’s sharing something important and internal about the person. And about sharing details appropriate to the setting that are character related.
Let’s examine this description in the first chapter of Katherine Reay’s book THE PRINTED LETTER BOOKSHOP: “He and his sister share the same deep-set eyes, eyebrows, and nose. Her ‘Irish twins,’ Granny Caoime called them. They looked alike, walked alike, laughed alike. Both bit the side of their cheek when deep in thought, narrowed their eyes when something didn’t sound right, and laughed loudest at their own jokes.” So first the main character narrator is telling us how her father and aunt were similar. We don’t get eye or hair color, but don’t you feel like you could see them a bit? Now look what the author does: “Though, if I remembered it correctly, Aunt Maddie’s laugh was more of a contagious giggle that held strong until you caught on and joined her. Dad’s, I knew from experience, held a slight condescension—you simply hadn’t caught the brilliance of his humor.” Wow! Which one would you prefer to be friends with? It also gives me insight into the main character and her relationships.
Here’s another approach. A story written all in letters, but note how you get ideas about the main character Juliet from her own words: “We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my viewpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue.” THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. If you continuing reading you’ll get even more about her personality. I love how Juliet describes a woman as “dismal” and hopes “Jane spat on her.” This young woman makes me smile.
In THE GIRL WHO LIVED by Christopher Greyson, the main character is described: “A couple months ago she’d dyed her long, caramel-brown hair too dark, and hated it. Her radical response was to shave her head. After the novelty wore off, she knew it wouldn’t make any difference. Jet-black, platinum-blond, she was the same damaged goods, no matter what the package looked like on the outside.” This instantly made me feel sympathy and wanting to know more.
Another appealing character is Captain Kidd in NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles. Here’s the second sentence of the book: “He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself.” A bit later on the page Captain is speaking: “That means colored gentlemen, he said. Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks.” Later the author describes him physically, but I’m already hooked by then.
What do these descriptions have in common? Character! Personality. Attitude. And in several we’ve gotten details of setting to help us place the person. I love what R.A. Nelson said, “I don't worry so much about readers being able to identify with my characters on a surface level, you know, the latest slang, TV shows, etc. I feel like when you completely inhabit the character and pour it out straight from your heart then the identification with the reader comes at a much deeper level, an identification that doesn't really have anything to do with gender, age, etc., but universal human truths.”
It was a critique partner who showed me where I was distancing the reader in my writing. It took me a while to get the concept firmly in my head, but once I did, I even caught my critique partner out.
So, what is distancing the reader? Adding filter words. We do it because are trying to show what our character is experiencing and add unnecessary verbiage. Here are some examples:
If we are with a character, whatever they see or hear can just be stated. The reader will assume the character witnessed it or experience it as well. The above could become:
Here are some other filter words:
Editor Louise Harnby says, “Filter words are verbs that increase the narrative distance, reminding us that what we’re reading is being told by someone rather than experienced, or shown, through the eyes of the character.” She also says, “To keep your prose tight, look out for filter words that tell of doing being done.”
Let’s look at Justin and Manuel expanded. First, with filtering in bold:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. He heard, shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room felt comforting. He knew Manuel was polishing his shoes. He realized that meant Manuel’d be leaving for work soon. Good, Justin thought. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Without filtering or distancing:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. Shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room was comforting—Manuel was polishing his shoes. Which meant he’d be leaving for work soon. Good. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Do you hear the difference?
In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers to step back and observe the observer—to look at rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
Does that mean you can never use filtering? Of course not. But if you do it should be done deliberately to change the meaning of the sentence, the pacing of the story, or for clarity.
As I mentioned in my last post, reading others’ works-in-progress made me ask the writers questions about setting during character conversations. Other common questions were: “What are they doing?” and “When is this happening?”
The fix for the first? Add character actions during dialogue. There are two types.
People are rarely totally still. We scratch an itch. Shift in a chair. Cross or uncross our legs. Bump against the counter when handwashing dishes. (I often get water on my clothes when I do so.) It’s allergy season at our house, which means there’s sneezing, throat clearing, and occasional coughs. These are mostly involuntary or unplanned actions. They can be great tools to:
…sneak in what a character is wearing. E.g. She sneezed into the sleeve of her faux fur coat. He scratched his knee through the hole in his ragged jeans. The girl tripped over her untied shoelace.
…show someone’s discomfort with the conversation. E.g. Matt cleared his throat and hoped his wife would get the hint to change the topic. Theresa flinched. The boy let out an exclamation of disgust.
…show a character’s interest. E.g. He inched closer. She rested a hand on his arm. They drew in their breaths in unison.
What is your character choosing to do? Be specific about it. If she’s drinking a cup of tea, it’s not just any tea, but a British blend with milk. He’s doing handwork. What kind? Knitting, crochet? My husband’s grandmother showed him how to do tatting, although he didn’t keep it up. Instead he’s more into woodworking. And lately bread making. The child is playing. Playing what? Pretending to be a police officer, or a cowboy riding the range? These specific details of what the character is actually doing while he talks will help ground the reader.
Conversations often take place during mealtimes. It really annoys me when characters on a TV show receive some great food, but never get to take a bite. If your characters are having a conversation during a meal, by the time it is done we should have some idea that they have eaten. For example: Jane swallowed her mouthful of orange soda before answering. Ben lathered butter onto his wheat roll. Cassie took the last bite of rare steak and angled her knife and fork across the paper plate.
Include character reactions to others (including animals). Our youngest daughter used to communicate that she was bored with a parental explanation by twisting her hair. A woman came to my door to deliver a package and backed off when my friendly dog appeared. When we are out somewhere, my husband often can tell I’ve seen a baby by the look on my face. Someone hard of hearing may ask others to repeat. Or sometimes we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re involved with, we don’t hear someone speak.
Action can also provide subtext. Another benefit is that action can show the lie to the words said. It can carry on a separate conversation from the dialogue. It can illustrate what’s really going on in the character’s mind. Look at this movie example, No. 3 from Sense and Sensibility: https://screenwritingmagazine.com/2018/04/03/top-10-examples-killer-subtext-movies/
I love what Becca Puglisi says, “Nonverbal vehicles are like annoying little brothers and sisters, tattling on the dialogue and revealing true emotion.” Her whole article is great—read it here: https://jerryjenkins.com/subtext-examples/
The fix for the second? Don’t neglect time. Is it midday or midnight? Let the reader know. A scene from the middle of the day moved to the middle of the night might have an intimacy that two o’clock in the afternoon wouldn’t. Is he eating a cookie at seven am? That’s probably more unexpected than dessert after dinner. A ramshackle abandoned cottage looks very different in bright sunshine than at dusk. Spring or fall? It could be humid during one season and cold during another—both will affect your characters.
Sometimes, all that is needed is a simple transition. E.g. Later that afternoon… After breakfast… Nothing happened until two weeks later. An actual clock or calendar can be used. E.g. Kasee checked the time. 10 pm. Where was he? – Sean opened his journal. Friday, May 1st.
Editor Beth Hill says, “References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction.” I like how she says setting props can help indicate seasons. Plastic Easter eggs scattered on the lawn is very different look from the rotting pumpkin left on the front stoop. Read more of her article here: https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/04/07/marking-time-with-the-viewpoint-character/.
I’ve found it helpful to create a written timeline as a guide for stories. I enter scenes and indicate when, where, what, and who. It helps me not have two Wednesdays or a six-day week. When a character refers back to “last Thursday,” I can check and make sure that really was the day the scene happened.
Help your reader keep track of when your characters are and what they are doing and your stories will feel more real.
I’ve been critiquing some novels and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Both writers had good dialogue and interesting problems, but I couldn’t place myself with the characters.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the street lights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! We want our writing to feel that true, as well.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” That’s what happens when a conversation is all dialogue. Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way? Here are some steps:
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact.
For example, instead of a flat statement:
It was a windy day.
Or including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc.:
Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day.
Show how the wind affects Lila.
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit of setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Another way to say it is “don’t tell the reader about the setting, show it.”
For example, a spoken flat statement:
“This apartment is too small,” Adam said.
Adam side-stepped to the stove so his wife could open the fridge. She grabbed the mayo and mustard and he reached in and picked up the lunchmeat. They bumped into each other getting bread and silverware, and a table knife fell to the floor with a dull thud. At the kitchen table, Mary scooted in her chair so Adam could squeeze past.
When this is mixed in with their conversation, a reader won’t have to guess at where these characters are.
Setting often includes weather as my Lila example did above. Heat, cold, rain, dry, humidity, snow, sleet, ice, etc. Whatever it is, whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be saddened, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by white snow.
The weather also affects how a character dresses. At 30 degrees I’m wearing a coat and gloves. At 60, short sleeve shirt and jeans usually work outside. It’s not yet warm enough for a swimsuit at 70, but I might pull out capris to wear. How does temperatures affect your character?
These details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.
Because I’ve moved to a new town and have joined a group in formation, we discussed what the attendees would like to see in the writer’s club.
The discussion reminded me of types of groups:
Critique – feedback on your own and other’s writing
Discussion – can be on a specific topic or writing in general
Lecture/Talk – usually craft focused or inspirational
Write In – a time to work on your own writing
Workshop – craft or marketing focused with some hands-on activity
Both face-to-face groups and online groups can provide any of these services. All can be useful, but it depends what you are looking for.
For me a variety of these groups have worked over the years. I love the chance to learn through lectures and workshops. It’s so great when some piece of craft advice clicks. Or when the “so that how that’s done” aha moment happens. I’ve mostly done in person sessions, especially conferences, but more and more webinars are available from the comfort of your own home. In addition, these events often inspire me, whether it is simply to press on, or with a specific piece of information that makes me avid to jump back into my own work. No matter how many I’ve done these, I discover new tidbits each time I participate.
I’ve found write ins to be very practical. I’ve participated in them in coffee shops, libraries, retreats, etc. Each person focuses on their own project. Just the fact that others are working around me helps me keep my butt in the chair and my hands on the keyboard. I like a weekly schedule. Headphones are helpful in a public place where conversations around me can be distracting. Mostly I’ve formed these with likeminded writers, but sometimes organizations will schedule them too.
Discussion can be fun, especially if it is focused. I’ve been in groups where we shared favorite books by genre, or good first lines, or marketing tips, etc. Having a theme makes the discussion more practical. I’ve found an unfocused group can end up being a gripe session, or can wander completely off writing.
But for me probably the most important group is a critique group. I’ve learned so much by what others have said about my work (the good and bad) and what I’ve seen in their writing, too. We encourage each other to press on. We inspire one another. Our meetings provide a deadline to have pages ready. Not only have we helped improve our writing by consistent meetings, but we’ve become close friends and family because of the time spent together.
How do you find a writer’s group? Check with your local library. Search online for writer’s groups in your area. Research national and international writing organizations. If you’re on Facebook, you can find groups there, too. Join writer list serves which often announce events or groups forming.
Here are some helpful resources, especially if a group doesn’t have established guidelines:
“General Critique Guidelines” by the Writer’s Loft
“10 Tips on How To Find or Form the Critique Group of Your Dreams” by Riki Cleveland
The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine
“How To Find A Writing Group, Because Every Aspiring Author Needs A Support Group”
by Sadie Trombetta
“Writing Groups 101: How to Find Your Perfect Match” by Kristen Pope
“The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups” by Jennie Nash
“The beauty hidden inside a tiny seed can never be discovered until it is planted, until the rains fall and the sun shines down upon it. The process takes time and patience, just as it does when God works in our hearts. When we wait on the Lord, weather the storms, and bask in His light, He takes our lives . . . and turns them into something beautiful.” Julie A. Campbell
Likewise, the beauty of story can never be discovered until we allow the germ of an idea to take root in our minds. When we plant an idea, water it, expose it to sunlight, weed it, prune and shape it, we’re preparing a story for harvest.
The process of growing a story takes time, patience and hard work. Very rarely does a story arrive in our minds in full bloom. And even when it does, the translation to paper usually seems to lose something. Just as some plants thrive best when surrounded by plants of other varieties, story ideas often need the stimulus of other ideas before they can grow.
Here are some questions, we need to ask ourselves, when we have a new idea:
Have I talked to God about my writing lately?
Am I willing to weather the storms of writing?
Is the soil of my mind prepared?
Do I know what I want to grow from this idea?
And finally, is it time to write this now? Is this what He wants me working on?
Sometimes an idea can lay dormant for months and years before it sprouts. Some have to grow many years before they can bloom. Just as we can’t expect immediate results when we plant an apple tree, not all ideas are ready to be written.
Whatever we write, whether it be secular or Christian, should bring glory to God. We should ask the Lord to help us to turn each new idea over to Him, to let Him guide us and lead us, to make each piece of writing into something beautiful.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.