Last week I read an article titled ‘Stephen King’s Tips for Character Description’. This article discussed the tips that Stephen King shares in his book titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft about writing character descriptions. After reading this article, I started to consider the main character in my novel and whether I had correctly described her. From looking at the Harry Potter and Katniss examples, I realised that I would need to figure out what part of my character (looks or personality) moves the plot forward.
At the bottom of the article, there are three character description exercises, so I decided to have a go at all three. And I thought it would be a good idea to share my answers with everyone, see below.
Write for fifteen minutes about a person who is looking for their lost car. Think about what is the most important thing about their appearance. What details will help you visualise what you want me to see?
‘Fluffy,’ shouted Barry. With a huff, he wheeled himself forward, each movement taking all the energy he could muster. ‘Come on, you mangy cat.’ Barry stopped wheeling his chair and sat back in his chair. Panting, he pushed back the scraggly hair that was tickling his nose and wiped the sweat from his brow. He didn’t know how much longer he could sit out here looking for his cat. It wasn’t like before when Fluffy had taken to disappearing for days.
‘Daddy, please find Fluffy,’ Savannah, his daughter, had said.
But unlike before, Barry was no longer able to walk the streets in search of that darned cat, not now that his legs were useless.
‘Fluffy, come here girl. Got some treats for you.’ Sighing, Barry commenced wheeling himself along the street. He didn’t know how much longer he would be able to keep looking. Unlike before, no one would be calling for him to come home, and what if he couldn’t manage to wheel himself back home. He had no phone with him, and even if he did, he had no one left to call, not since the accident.
A strand of hair returned to tickling Barry’s nose. He blew it in a pointless effort to move it, but it didn’t work. Instead, it continued to sweep across Barry’s nose. He needed a haircut, something he had been telling himself for months, and something his wife would have scowled him for, but none of it mattered anymore. All that mattered was finding fluffy. He needed her. She was all he had left to remind him of a time before this blasted wheelchair. Barry stopped and banged his fists on his legs. ‘Work damn you. Why won’t you work?’
Take fifteen minutes to write a scene introducing a character from a story you are writing now. Or re-write a scene based on Stephen King’s tips.
I decided to use the main character in my novel, but I chose to create a new scene before the novel takes place.
Shannon Hillcroft raced down the street her work bag swinging wildly behind her. She was late; she couldn’t believe it. She knew she shouldn’t have listened to Karen. ‘Babes, it’s your first day; you should make an effort and do your hair. Instead of leaving it in a boring bun.’ So foolishly Shannon had decided to straighten her hair before work – big mistake.
After fighting to get her hair to resemble a L’Oréal model’s hair, she had missed her bus. And now her feet pounded the ground as she raced to her office.
A man reading the paper blindly walked out of the newsagent and stopped, blocking Shannon’s path. ‘Get out of the way, asshole,’ Shannon shouted. Startled the man looked up and darted out of the way in time to avoid a collision.
The man shouted something, but Shannon kept on running. She had no time to argue with some inconsiderate prick. The wind whipped around Shannon’s hair as she ran undoing all her hard work. ‘Fucking hell,’ she shouted as she fought to push her hair out of her face. Why had she listened to Karen?
Take fifteen minutes to re-read the first chapter of a book you love and have read. Look for the description of the main character and observe how the author introduces them. What details did the author give?
I read the first chapter of Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. This is one of my favourite books, and of course, it is perfect to see how Stephen King applies his own tips on character description to his stories.
In the first chapter of Lisey’s Story, I found out the following:
- Her full name is Lisey Landon
- Her maiden name is Debusher
- She is married to an award-winning author
- She has three sisters
- The eldest sister, Amanda, is the one she likes the least
- Her husband, Scott Landon, died two years ago
- She doesn’t have a college degree (something a rude character points out)
- She’s a business-minder (someone who minds her own business)
- She’s struggling with grief
- She’s a good liar even though she doesn’t lie very often – only does so when she needs to.
- The only clue to how she looks is a comment made by her sister who says a photo makes her look fat; however, this isn’t a trustworthy clue.
Having read the novel I know it’s Lisey’s personality and how she deals with life that moves the plot forward more so than how she looks. This explains why there isn’t any real detail on how Lisey looks in the first chapter. The rest of the information about Lisey is dripped through. She’s either doing something that highlights her personality or something is said or done which leads to a flash of memory, for example, Lisey’s sister says the word ‘scrids’ the narrator then mentions that ‘scrids’ was Lisey’s mother’s word for ‘scraps’.
From doing the exercises I have a better understanding of how to present my character to a reader, and how important a character’s description is – just imagine if we were never told about Harry’s scar. I would recommend these exercises to any writer, especially newbies. I know I will be doing exercise two for all of my main characters in the future because it helps you to get to know your character better.
And because I did this exercise I now have a new story to write. I want to see if Barry finds his cat, makes his way home, and if he finds life and happiness again. Oh, and I also want to know where all this is leading to. The only problem is that I shouldn’t really add a new story to my ‘to-edit’ pile. Darn it the urge to write is too strong to resist.
Anyway, let me know how you get on with your character description exercises.
Keep writing, folks!