Great books begin with memorable characters. But how do you make your character stand out without putting the reader to sleep?
Avoid overly long and wordy descriptions. In a recent class, author Ann Dee Ellis said writers sometimes give tons of background description, hoping to make characters memorable. But lengthy descriptions make the story drag. She advises, “Details must move the story forward.”
2. Choose concise details. In place of long descriptive paragraphs, Ann Dee suggests “very powerful words used sparingly,” such as in the short story, Mama Gone. Author Jane Yolen uses small, concise details to create strong characters. Instead of pausing the narrative to describe the father’s sadness over his wife’s death, Yolen describes how “He rubbed his head against the cabin wall over and over and over and made little animal sounds.” This single in-scene detail packs more power than any long description.
Remember, memorable doesn’t have to mean weird. The best details resonate with the reader because s/he can somehow relate. In Mama Gone, we don’t have to possess the characteristic (being a motherless father and child) to understand the common emotion (loss) at its core.
Prioritize the details you choose. Are your MC’s deep amber eyes as important as his compulsive hatred of haircuts? The protagonist’s long curls, however, might be an important characteristic that hints at parents who insisted on short hair and every other form of pulchritude.
Instead of a kitchen sink approach that catalogs every aspect of height, weight and shoe size, pare your character descriptions by choosing a few succinct details that carry meaning.
3. Weave details into the action: A recent study reported that the average U.S. attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. While I’m optimistic that avid readers have higher spans, you can’t risk putting your story on hold for long.
As Ann Dee Ellis says, “Writing novels are like writing poetry. Every word matters.” As you keep these tips in mind, your characters will matter more as well.
(Originally posted on the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Blog)