What does a character look like?

Whenever I’m reading a book, it’s hard for me to put a face to the character if the writer doesn’t describe anything.  I know there’s a crowd that says to leave it off, leave it up to the reader’s imagination or imagine herself.

I don’t imagine myself in the character’s place.  If I don’t get a description of the character, it’s a missing piece of the characterization for me.

Not only that, it gives control of an aspect of the story up to the reader.

Even non-fiction tales about people describe the people as part taking the reader back into that world of the past.

If someone walks up to you, don’t you look at them?  See what they look like?  Maybe notice that the clothes don’t fit or that they lost weight?  Don’t you form an opinion about that person?

The problem is how description of characters is taught.  As an exercise, separate of a character’s point of view and separate of the story.  It’s like a mug shot:

He had brown hair and his eyes were blue.  He had to be over six foot tall.  He wore a black suit.



He was a big guy.  Made me feet short, and I wasn’t short.  Hair shaved to hide he was going bald.  He wore a black suit, but had gotten it off the rack without looking in the mirror.  Shoulders pulled wrong, button strained.  The pants hem pooled around his ankles.

Some of the particularly memorable writers I’ve read have been that because they described both the setting and the characters.

And just for fun, here’s a picture of what Ian Fleming thought James bond looked like.

Keeping track of characters

As I work on novels, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember all the character names, and in some cases, the spelling of them.  Especially early in the process while I’m developing the characters.

So I just have a composition book, and on the first page it has a list of all the names.  Nothing fancy, like trying to alphabetize them or organize them in any way.  They’re just on the list as they come into the story, and get scratched out if I realize I don’t need them after all.

For my current project I also drew a line about two thirds down and split the page into two columns.  Since this story is science fiction, one side is for the names of spaceships, and the other side is the names of planets.

I like the notebook over a spreadsheet or Word file, because if I need the spelling of the ship name, it’s a quick look.  Or a quick addition.  A computer file requires me to stop, open the software, open the file—and disrupt the writing substantially.

And I don’t work terribly hard on it.  This is for quick reference when I’m writing. 

Not Fixing it on the Revision

One of the “rules” I’ve seen around is not to edit or revise as your write.  It leaves writers to race through the draft and deal with a more worse problem:

I’ll fix it on the revision.

Last week, I hit about 10K on my science fiction novel Sinhollow, and I realized I had a problem.  One of the characters wasn’t working.  I included her initially because I wanted to make sure I have enough women characters.  I didn’t want my heroine to be the only woman.

My choices were to leave the character in and deal with it on the revision, but I know that’s a way that leads to a whole lot of unnecessary work (having gone down that path before).  I spent about an afternoon pulling her from the scenes and adding new dialogue.  Wasn’t all that hard to do.  But if I’d waited until the story was done, a lot more would have been tangled up, and each change would have rippled into other changes that would have in turn caused other changes.

And it made me think about the character, because I didn’t want to get rid of her.  So she has a new role, and I’m going back to add scenes.

Not revision.  No editing.  It’s creating.

Picking names for story characters

When I first started writing, I used to labor over finding just the “right” character name. What defined “right”?

Not a clue.

I’d geta baby name book — you know how hard it is buying one of those? Everyone thinks you’re having a baby, not a writer trying to find a name. I’d go through the book and identify about six or so names caught my attention. Didn’t pay any attention to what the name meant.

Then I’d go through my list and scratch out this one and that one because maybe I liked it a little less than the others.

Today …

For an urban fantasy short story I’m working on (Green Magic in Washington DC — the Cherry Blossoms are coming, you know), I was hunting through the Washington Post for last names of writers of the articles. Honestly, after doing a novel which had 30 characters because of the type of story it was, a name just isn’t that big of a deal.

Some writers say that the name makes the character, but I find that’s not true. I make the character. If I don’t do that right, a name isn’t going to change that.

How Many Women Characters Are in Your Book?

A striking photo of a Latina woman at laptop, a painting of a redhaired woman mounted on a bright green wall behind her.March is Women’s History Month, though I actually don’t like these types of events.  They exist because history and even present doesn’t always recognize people outside of a select group.  I remember one time, when I was in the military I was talking to one of of the NCOs.  He was African-American, and he lamented that it would be a long time before he saw an African-American President of the United States.  I told him that it would happen before a woman became President.

You know how that came out.

To look at the high levels of politics and management, and even to look at books, it doesn’t look like there’s many women out there.  I find far too many books where there’s only one woman character.  Even a book with 100 characters, and 99 are men.  How exactly is this reality?  It’s like history months.  We’ll recognize one to sell the books, and everything else will be status quo.  And by the way, we’ll put in skintight leather, too, because the men are the important readers, not the women.

Okay, that may not be accurate, but that’s the impression I keep getting.  And it’s made worse when the lone woman character tends toward masculine and immature.

I want my women characters to be smart.

I want my women characters to be savvy.Three women in their 60s and 70s recline on a beach under two umbrellas, the blue of the sea behind them.

I want my women characters to be mature within range of their age.

I want my women characters not to be sex objects.

And especially, I want there to be more than one woman character in the book.

Is that too much to ask?

Cover of the Darkness Within shoing a monstrous face in shadows.My short story “A Soldier’s Magic” appears in the anthology The Darkness Within, available from Indigo Mosaic Publishing.  It features two women soldiers who have to make a tough decision to save a lot of people.  There are three women in the story.

Characterizing a Queen

I ran across a discussion recently (sorry, could not find it again) that mentioned how royalty is often presented in books.  The king or queen is often corrupt, arrogant, or haughty.  This was something I picked up on when I was reading fantasy books, and I wanted to steer clear of it.  I’m in Washington, DC, so it’s very easy to get exposed to a very different viewpoint on what senior leadership is like — just even by reading the daily newspaper or listening to the radio.

So when I created my character for the Queen, I wanted to do someone who didn’t fit into the traditional role of the royalty that we usually see in books.  She’s not corrupt or haughty — she’s essentially a politician and a businesswoman.  A type A personality who knows what time it is to the minute and dresses in a suit.  She probably spends most of her days in meeting after meeting after meeting.

But, being in DC, I’ve also seen what politics do to women.  There was a lot of discussion that popped up about women candidates, especially during the last election.  One of the most notable things was that men got reported on what they said (or muffed up) or did; women got reported on what they wore.  The women often couldn’t experiment much with clothes because if they went outside of Washington Black/Gray Suit, they would either not be viewed as one of the boys or get blasted in the press for wearing something different.

So my Queen has to have a hard edge because she’s essentially herding cats — the Chiefs, the press, the leaks.  That created its own problem, which was that a hard edge might make her into unlikable.   I still remember one suspense novel I read where the author tried to have a female character be “one of the boys,” and she turned into the nastiest heroines I’ve seen.  My Queen is a secondary character.  Since she likes the main character, those scenes with him are where I soften her up a bit.  He’s one of the few people she doesn’t need to project a particular image with.  But when she’s got a crisis at hand, she’s right on top of it, seeing the big picture of how it all fits together and keeping people on track.  She’s also willing to seek out experts to give her advice.  The main character in the story is unofficially her Magic Adviser (which just means she doesn’t want to advertise she has one, since the press would not be polite on this).  If something happens that looks like it might be magic-related, she consults with him for his opinion.  If there’s a magic disaster (which is, of course, the case in the story), she looks for his guidance on what she needs to do to ensure the safety of the country.

Competent Characters

A competent character is something I like to see when I read a book.  The character’s going to face some high stakes issues, and he can’t afford to be a pinball bouncing from crisis to crisis, not knowing what he’s doing.  Maybe this comes out of me being in the Army.  There, they train soldiers a lot so if they run into trouble they have a chance of coming up with a way out of it.

That’s been my approach with creating my main character, Keymas, for Miasma.  When I first started the book, I was having a hard time with getting subplots into the book, so I kept trying to insert different ones.  An early one, which I jettisoned quickly, involved him coming into his magic recently (3 years ago) and not knowing really how to use it.  He was trying to find someone to teach him without revealing that he had gotten this magic to someone else.  Considering what was going to happen in the story, this subplot attempt made him look like he didn’t know what he was doing, and that was far from the character I was creating.

A competent character doesn’t have to know everything, but he should be competent in what he does know so that he can deal with the unexpected.   So my approach has been to make most of his problems external — he’s limited in his knowledge because the records that would have contained information were destroyed in a war.  But, because he is competent, he knows more than anyone else because he’s taken the time to learn.  He knows if he doesn’t, it’s going to get him killed.  It puts a very different spin on the story.

Putting Characters in Perspective

When I did my second novel, I had four main characters, and I gave them all equal weight in the story.  They ended up jostling each other for dominance in the story.  I ended up going back to the beginning and picking the person who the story was going to focus on.  Every character has their role. I thought tying this into TV shows is a useful way to look at it:

The Star of the Show: Your main character.  He’s on the screen most of the time.  The story is about him or something he needs to do.

Special Guest Star: That’s your villian. He’s trying to thwart the main character. But the story is still going to be the main character’s.

The Costars or Supporting Cast: Important characters to the story, but the story isn’t about them resolving the problem–they help the main character resolve the problem.  They could even be people who get put into danger because something the main character or the villian does.

Guest Cast: These are the minor characters who come into the story. They may come in for two or three scenes for a specific purpose, then disappear. Like coroner in a police show who explains how the victim died to the main character.   Her role is done after that because she’s not needed any more.

5 Resources for Naming Your Characters

Baby Names.com: The site displays names in lists that are easy to scan, plus you can sort by orgin of name.  Handy if you’re writing fantasy, and you want to stay in the same name family for continuity.  The mouseover popups are a bit annoying though.

Baby Name Box: This has a fairly extensive list of name orgins you can sort by.  The site has an annoying popup, and the search by letter feature is not working.

Social Security’s Popular Baby Names:   Search by decade for the most popular name.  This was great for picking an older character’s name when I wanted him to sound a little out of date.

Common Nicknames:  This is a genealogy guide to figuring out what a person’s real name was if everyone only knew them by a nickname.

World Family Names:  See where a last name pops up across the globe.  Very handy if you want geographical references.

Invincible Characters in Urban Fantasy

Have you noticed the trend of invincible women characters in urban fantasy?  In the last book I read, the character was beaten up, thrown off a cliff, and fatally stabbed (some details changed to protect the guilty).  Yet, each time, no matter how bad the injuries, she survived because she had a miraculous–and very convenient–form of healing magic.  And each time I pick up a new book, it seems like the author tries to outdo everyone else by coming up with new forms of bodily harm, from which the character easily recovers to go merrily onto the next beating.

I think I get why the healing magic is there in the first place.  When I did a Civil War thriller, one of the problems I ran into was that women are simply not as physically strong as men.  There may be some exceptions–I certainly saw some men do very poorly on the physical training test in the army.  But from the story-telling perspective, it can be very challenging to come up with action scenes that are realistic to the gender.  I remember trying to figure out how this woman was going to escape from a locked room that was guarded by two bad guys.  Given the frigid setting and things to come, she couldn’t get hurt, so I had to really think through how the scene could be worked.

It would have been easier giving her healing magic and letting her blow through the scene.  Except.

No risk.

No suspense.

No actual danger.

Characters shouldn’t be invincible.  It really takes the fun out of the story.