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  • sarahjmaxwell

Character Assassination

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

How easy is it to develop a well-rounded character? Perhaps the question should be, how easy is it to fail?

First of all, you don’t have to give the reader EVERYTHING (height, shoe size, contour of breasts – men take note!). But give them too little and they’re 2D – no more than words on a page.

How do you create a realistic character that resonates with your reader? Appearance is important, but under no circumstances should you have the protagonist surveying their reflection gratuitously, with no other purpose than to tell the reader what they look like.

If you have them looking in the mirror for a legitimate reason, by all means allude to the character’s overall appearance:

Clive knew Mary had screwed up with the shaver, but he wanted to know how badly. He wasn’t prepared for the almost bald dude looking back at him. Was it that bad? He smiled, revealing the yellow wedges of teeth. It was bad.

So, Clive has bad teeth. Maybe you can even add: Clive stroked his handlebar moustache – should he shave that too?

But to add character to Clive, show us who he is - leave your reader wanting to know more: He stared into pale eyes, grinding teeth and tensing his body, old scars stood out silver across his chest.

I recently re-read ‘The Hunger Games’ and was struck by how adept Suzanne Collins is at introducing us to her characters. On the first page, Prim is described as having a face as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. This sentence carries so much weight, but it isn't that Prim is lovely that is important, it's her innocence. What a powerful way to convey this aspect of her character and of course, her innocence becomes significant later on.

On the second page, the narrator (Katniss) says: I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has moulded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap and grab my forage bag.

An instant and vivid character - a hunter, provider, a girl who hides her long braid (her innocence?) beneath a hat. A page or two later, effortless character enhancement: Gale says I never smile except in the woods.

And finally, by page 9, the picture is complete: He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin; we even have the same grey eyes.

Collins makes it seem easy, right? And isn't this so much better than Katniss stopping to gaze at herself in the mirror?

I took some time going over Harry Potter – the Boy Who Lived, the enigma. How are we so drawn into a story that starts when the main protagonist is a baby. How does the writer develop Harry's character if he's not yet crawling?

The answer: JK Rowling presents us with everything Harry will NOT be. The Dursleys:

They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

Hang on – check the cover – this isn’t Dudley Dursley and the Philosopher’s Stone. Yet expectations are encouraged and later enforced as Rowling incites distrust/dislike of the Dursleys:

…they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

We don’t find out what teenage Harry looks like for a considerable amount of time, but his character is already partially formed by the blandness of the Dursleys. Genius.

When Rowling finally gives us the goods and describes Harry, she doesn’t hold back, but her description of Harry isn't gratuitous, it's relevant to who he is - the glasses held together with sellotape (unlikely hero), the scar (the boy who lived) - or because it’s a recurring theme (his mother's green eyes).

I’d love to write more about character development, so if anyone is particularly interested, let me know and I’ll blog more.

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Mar 19, 2021

I hadn't thought about the subtleties of character descriptions before. In "good" writing its picked up along the way. It reminded me of the trashy novels I would read as a teen. My best friend would read the same books, generally by authors such as Danielle Steele. The characters always had a full page description and the ladies invariably had their 'sleek hair, tied stylishly in a knot at the nape of the neck'

We would try to pull off this look! Unfortunately ours would have been described as 'a scruffy pony tail held together with a Woolworths elastic band'

Enjoying the blog. Xx

Mar 19, 2021
Replying to

Haha! Glad you enjoyed the blog and thanks for the comment. Hard to condense everything I'd like to say in a short blog. Can relate to the Danielle Steele descriptions. My mum was an avid fan and I'd always read them after her. They always had 'flawless complexions' and 'wide eyes'. 😆

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