Creating Characters: Appearance
By Ashley Lister
Over the past few months I’ve used this space to look at point of view. As an essential for writing, I think point of view is one of those things that needs to be right from the first line, which is why I looked at it early on here. However, there is one thing that most writers agree is more important than point of view – more important than any other feature of fiction writing: character.
Character is the reason why most of us pick up stories. We want to read about new and exciting people doing new and exciting things. We want to meet someone with whom we can fall in love, share an adventure, or solve a mystery. We want all of these things so badly, it’ fair to say that characters are vital to fiction.
There are four things that we use to create characters in fiction: appearance, speech, action and thought. I’m going to cover these individually over the next few months and the first one I’ll be looking at is appearance.
As human beings we’re very visual creatures. Appearance is important to us because this is how we quantify the world. We pay lip service to the idea that ‘you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’, and yet this is how most books are judged in bookshops. We insist ‘it’s personality that counts’ yet we exist in a culture where potential partners are matched or discarded by a right or left swipe, and you can guarantee that no one is saying, “I didn’t like the look of his/her personality.”
This is the physical description of one of the characters from my latest novel: Doll House.
John pulled the car to a halt outside a pair of tall, imposing gates. He stepped out of the vehicle and stood illuminated in the headlights as he fumbled with a lock and chain. He was an angular man: tall and slender and unnatural in his gait. In his corduroy slacks, sports jacket and a Harris tweed flat cap, he looked like a man who knew how to dress for the countryside even if the environment seemed not quite right for him.
I’ve done this deliberately, to make John look like a man ill at ease in his surroundings. He’s an agent, so it will be difficult for writers to like him anyway. But, in the description, we’re treated to an image of a man that we don’t fully trust because he seems uncomfortable and false in his surroundings. To my mind that’s good, because this is a character that I don’t want my readers to trust.
This is how I introduce the romantic lead in A Taste of Passion.
Her vision was beginning to adjust to the lack of light in the room and she could see the lines that weathered his face. His eyes were wrinkled by the suggestion of constant smiles. She could see he had raised one steel-grey eyebrow, as though encouraging her to continue. She wanted to believe he was grudgingly impressed with her abilities but the lighting in the dining area was too dim for her to read much from the shadows that cloaked his face.
This is Trudy’s first encounter with Bill Hart. I wanted to make him seem like a mysterious character, which is why she’s meeting him in the dark and only getting glimpses of his features. He’s not a youthful character but he’s wearing his age well. The fact that his eyes are wrinkled by the suggestion of constant smiles suggests a pleasant disposition.
Which leads me to a brief writing exercise that I use in classes occasionally. Write a character in a single, short paragraph (no more than three sentences). Give us an idea of the physical, make it so your reader can see that individual, and try to make them distinctive. It’s a tall order but it’s not impossible.
And, if you feel like sharing your work, please post your results in comments box below.