Describing Protagonists

A man being drawn

 

The other day, I encountered a conversation on Facebook prompted by a question on how best to describe the main character of a book, and when several responses amounted to “don’t”, I figured it was a topic worth discussing further.

Descriptive minimalism is all the rage these days – and don’t get me wrong, I hardly yearn for a return to multi-page-long tangents of flowery irrelevance – but I always find my reader side irritated when an author can’t be bothered to describe the protagonist without a thematic reason not to do so.  In short stories, sure, it’s not so big of a deal, as they’re usually more about ideas than characters, but if you’re going to have me follow someone for an entire novel, at least give me a clue as to whom I should be picturing. I can fill in the blank, but it’ll probably be with something pretty stock, and I’m reading for a glimpse into your imagination, not mine.

Physical appearance should certainly take a back seat to personality and actions as far as defining a character, but it’s still an avenue for interesting subtext, and something worth taking advantage of.  Personal imagery is a powerful thing; we’re visually oriented and strongly wired to pay it mind.  Let your readers make assumptions about how characters might act based on what they look like, then challenge or confirm them as you see fit – a motif equally applicable to reality.  Forcing your readers to assume what characters look like based on how they act is something that doesn’t make sense outside the context of a story – assuming the characters interact with others and aren’t invisible.

As to the how of the original question, there are plenty of non-intrusive methods to describe a character.  As long as the narrative isn’t strictly perspectivized (and the perspective has no reason to draw attention to it), there’s nothing wrong with a simple declarative sentence or two: “He was a short, tan, and lumpy fellow, not unlike a potato.”  Sprinkling adjectives onto actions (“She tied back her long, brown tresses”) or using dialogue from others (“Aren’t you a little too tall for that?”) are quick and seamless.  Even reflections, as tropey as they are, are a natural way to bring up appearance within the bounds of the narrative if the perspective character is self-critical, vain, or recently changed in some way.

All of that said, though, this is one of those things that ultimately comes down to a matter of personal preference.  So, as a reader (and/or writer), what’s yours?

 

Bene scribete.

Marking Thoughts

Thought bubble

 

Last month, I detailed the conventions of setting off dialogue in narrative.  This week, I figured I would follow up with the same for characters’ thoughts.

Unlike the more clearly defined and fairly universally accepted considerations for tagging and punctuating speech, conventions on portraying thoughts are much looser and more open to stylistic preference.  As such, I’ll go over the more commonly implemented methods, and how I feel they are best handled.

 

Indirect

The most basic and innocuous of options is simply to describe a character’s thoughts or feelings with the narrative.

The sign recommended not jumping off of the bridge.  Tomsfield thought this was a good idea.

With her parents out of town for a week, Jenna felt as free as waiting room coffee.

Dipton did not particularly want to ride the rollercoaster.

This is a straightforward, low-level use of language.  Without stating a literal verbalization of the thought, it does not require an understanding of or agreement on any technique specific to storytelling, and it is thus the most prominently utilized of any of these methods.

 

Perspective Statements

A more stylistic approach to conveying thoughts is to insert them into the narrative as direct, subjective statements belonging to the character holding the story’s point of view.  This works the most transparently in first person.

I picked up my report and stared dumbly at the ‘D’ scrawled in red within its upper margin.  This was ridiculous.  Mrs. Clemp had no idea what she was on about.

But it can also work in tightly-defined third person.

Berg leaned back in his chair, contemplating the rabbit.  It was kind of adorable.  How did it stay so white and fluffy?

In both cases, the latter two sentences, even though written without demarcation, are understood to be their respective POV-characters’ direct thoughts, rather than objective truths about the story being told.  This is easier to accept in the first example, as first-person accounts are naturally perspectivized as is.  It requires a subtle leap of understanding to pull off in third person, but it’s commonly done enough that it shouldn’t cause hang-ups with most readers.

However, as this is a technique of implicit attribution, avoid using it in parallel omniscient.  It makes for a sloppy and confused narrative voice, and its misuse is one of the primary reasons I would recommend against parallel omniscient altogether.

“I need some of that pizza,” Pencil whispered.  He hadn’t eaten all day, and it smelled amazing.  A rumble stirred the emptiness within his belly.  Wasting not another moment, he snatched up a tantalizingly cheesy slice and slid it down his gullet.  It was more delicious than it had any right to be.  Tina rolled her eyes.  Pencil was such a slob.

Gregolas chuckled, grabbing another piece for himself.  “Eat up – there’s a couple more pies on the counter.”  Takeout from Cheesy Palace was a surefire way to buy some of Pencil’s time, and he was hoping to get him to run some numbers tonight.  Olga scooted away from him, wrinkling her nose as the pizza’s cheap, nauseating odor burned her nostrils.  Why did Greg have to eat it so often?

Tuesday nights were always a blast, and this one was shaping up to be no different.

The narrative voice can’t act as a surrogate perspective for more than one character at a time, or it loses coherence.  If you must do parallel omniscient, remember that the ‘narrator’ has to be a detached entity to be able to focus on multiple characters simultaneously, and with that in mind, use only explicit attribution for thoughts, whether direct or indirect.

Finally, note that direct thoughts as perspective statements should retain the tense of the narrative.

The frog hopped up to the overturned garbage pail and saw a massive swarm of flies circling above it.  This is fantastic.

 

Quotes

Direct thoughts, just like dialogue, can be explicitly attributed and set off with quotes.

“I am a rather large man,” Bendleman thought.

Clean and precise, but largely fallen out of style.  If you go this route, keep in mind that it cannot be used with implicit attribution, as it will be read as speech.

For a minute or two, Maria found herself staring at a big yellow duck on the edge of the lake.  It kept trying to swim into a massive rock poking out from the water’s surface.  “I wonder if he’s an idiot.”

 

Unmarked Direct

Some writers will attribute thoughts without any special punctuation.

I’m pretty tired, Lubrio realized.  He’d been up since 4:00 A.M.

I’ll come right out and say I’m not a fan of this method, and I recommend against using it.  Shifting tense and person without strong demarcation makes for a disjointed reading experience.  If you can’t be convinced otherwise, then at least, as with quotes, restrict it to explicit attribution.

Oreo found his dog lounging on the living room sofa, blanketed by the tattered remains of the new curtains.  He shook his head, but couldn’t suppress a rueful smile.  I love you, Broomstick, but you’re a damned jerk.  He took a seat by her head and farted loudly.

 

Italics

Anymore, the most common practice you’re likely to see for conveying direct thoughts, as it gives us the best of all worlds in terms of clarity and flexibility.  It’s strong demarcation that won’t be confused with speech, and it can be used tagged or untagged.

It’s a little too quiet in here, Joyster thought.  She began tapping her foot against the ground.

The bee buzzed up to the chef’s hat and slipped stealthily inside it.  He’s the one that stole my honey – I just know it!

Italics can be used similarly to perspective statements, but conversely to perspective statements, italics denote literal, verbalized thoughts and therefore should change tense and person (unless your narrative is already in first-person present).

Barley stumbled as a basketball slammed into his back.  Her turned in time to see Chuggs standing there with his stupid smirk.  Why was he so rude to him all the time?

Barley stumbled as a basketball slammed into his back.  Her turned in time to see Chuggs standing there with his stupid smirk.  Why is he so rude to me all the time?

Like perspective statements, however, italics should be restricted to one POV per scene or block, especially when used implicitly.

 

Not a comprehensive list, and again, the means of indicating characters’ thoughts are not so expressly prescribed as those for their speech, but this hopefully provides some guidelines for what conventions there are.  Whichever method works best with your style, aim for clarity, cohesiveness, and transparency, and give your readers a chance to slip neatly into your characters’ heads.  (>^-‘)>

 

Bene scribete.

Letter Palettes

A while back, I talked a bit about what you might consider when naming characters, and today I thought I would follow up by expounding specifically on the topic of pulling words out of your—well, making them up.

Letter Palette

Uh…

 

When concocting names for characters, places, or objects, we tend to favor certain sounds.  Where we gravitate is mostly informed by the language(s) we speak, and what we’ve come to associate with pre-established words and names.  Certain phonemes build specific impressions in our minds, and we rely on this context to put together fitting verbal symbols for whatever we’re assigning them to.  Whether or not this is typically done on a conscious level, identifying and mapping out your preferences (both general and circumstantial) can be a useful endeavor.

For instance, my general letter palette would look like this:

 

+

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A C D E I K L M N R S T J O Q V X Y Z B F G H P U W

 

The first column represents what I feel are the most benign letters, and I use them fairly indiscriminately.  The second contains letters that I like at certain times, but aren’t as ubiquitously usable.  The third holds the letters that I tend to avoid.  When my intent is to give a name a rough or unpleasant edge, however, these preferences easily operate in reverse.  The initial and terminal letters of the word will be particularly prone to these guidelines.

Now, this chart is pretty simplistic, containing only letters from the English Roman alphabet and not taking digraphs into account, but you get the idea.  I’m calling it a letter palette (as opposed to a simply phonetic one) because visual aesthetics are also a consideration – sounds can often be written a number of ways, and their appeal can be tweaked as such.

Making a general purpose palette for yourself can be an enlightening exercise, but they become particularly handy when tailored for specific sets.  If, for your story, you need to create a distinct culture with its associated terminology and members’ names, planning out a letter palette for it can help you quicken the process while maintaining a consistent feel.

 

So, do you find yourself with particular letter preferences?  Could you define your own general palette?

 

Bene scribete.

Names

Naming characters is an important, sometimes fun, sometimes tricky part of the fiction-writing process, and is something I alternately love and dread.  A name is a symbol that represents someone, both offering identity to those it is attached to, and in turn adopting it from them.

I find that there are generally three ways (or a mix thereof) to come up with and decide upon those monikers:

  • Namesakes.  One simple way to name a character is to do so (in part or in whole) after someone else – someone you know, someone from history, or even another character from some other work.  Such a name will probably already have strong connotations for you, and those might just be appropriate for who you’re writing.
  • Meaning.  The advantage writers have over parents in the naming department is the foreknowledge of who this person or creature they’re creating will be, and can choose a name that is symbolically fitting (or ironically incongruous).  This can be in the form of a name that’s also a word in the operative language (Will, Victor, Dawn, Amber, etc.), a word from another language, or something suitable trolled from babynames.com.  (>^-‘)>
  • Aesthetics.  Often, just focusing on how a name sounds and looks is all you need to do.  I tend to lean mostly in this direction, relying heavily on phonetics when working out what to call characters.  Sounds used together in specific ways can evoke qualities of roughness, delicacy, power, playfulness, and a number of other feelings to subconsciously color the impression of the named.  Spelling should also be a consideration; the visual appeal of different letter arrangements can have the same sort of impact.  All of this goes for whether you’re picking a common name or making up a new one (though I could probably do a whole separate post on the latter!).

 

However you end up choosing your names, there is one thing I always recommend.

 

Tip of a fishName Your Characters As Soon As Possible.

The less you’ve decided about a character, the easier it is to settle on a name.  At least that’s always been the case for me.  Sometimes, the name will even help slightly with further direction!

The more important a character is, the more true this becomes.  If you have a strong image of the character in mind by the time you start thinking seriously about what to call them, picking a name that feels right can be a daunting task.  It means you have all the more context and nuance to map to that all-important referential symbol.  It’ll seem like you have to find a name that already represents all facets of the character, rather than letting the name come to do so naturally as the character develops.

 

But what about you?  Do you agonize over the subtleties of your characters’ names?  How do you like to go about choosing them?

 

Bene scribete.