Characterizing Details

I’m doing some critiques for webinars right now (if you haven’t gotten yours back yet, be very patient…I have 90 days from the date of the deadline to get it back to you), and I would just love to put a moratorium on character descriptions that tell me nothing that’s necessary to my understanding. Let’s define a characterizing detail, shall we?

Characterizing detail: Something the author puts into the text that works on multiple levels to give me a deeper understanding of a character’s core identity, worldview, relationships to others, and relationship to self.

Let’s do a quick characterizing details quiz. I’m not going to write full-blown examples of each event for you. These are the simple facts. In fully realized prose, they would ideally be shown, not told to you. But for the sake of this exercise, imagine that this is what you learn from a given piece of information, regardless of how that information is delivered. Which of the following are characterizing details?

  1. Jenny has brown hair.
  2. Michael bends down to pick up someone’s dropped penny.
  3. Ian likes ice cream.
  4. Laura tugs at her sweater whenever she sees Greg.
  5. Holly has freckles.
  6. Debra skips church to go to the go-kart races every Sunday.
  7. Beau’s walls are painted a pale yellow.
  8. Kyle bought an urn at a thrift store and keeps it on his bookshelf.
  9. Amanda takes guitar lessons.
  10. Rufus is first kazoo in his neighborhood band.

The last two examples are a bit conflated, perhaps, because musical ability does inform character, no matter what the instrument, but I think you get the point I’m making with this very leading quiz. Notice a few things about characterizing details:

  • I don’t care, at the end of the day, what your character looks like–unless something about their physicality is important to plot or story, it’s likely arbitrary
  • Characterizing details are revealed through action–Showing, not Telling
  • Characterizing details have emotional resonance–when we see Laura tug at her sweater, we get a sense of something else that might be going on beneath the surface
  • This information broadcasts into the future–we get the sense that what we learn here will come back at some point in the story and be relevant
  • Characterizing details tend to be specific

When you’re dealing with character, and especially at the beginning of your book–whether novel or picture book!–make sure you are choosing details and actions that do double duty and flesh out character on a more emotional level for your reader. You can talk about their favorite fast food and music all day long, but that has a very limited reach. It’s when we know them in action and in relationship to other characters that they truly come alive.

10 Replies to “Characterizing Details”

  1. In the manuscript I just finished, the main character’s mother is never described physically and I never even give her a name.

    I wanted to see what would happen if I left her physical appearance completely out of it and just gave her a presence.

    When my someone in my crit group asked about this–and it took them a while to pick up on it–I said what do you think she looks like?

    They each described a different person from their past who was deeply loving, affectionate, and humorous on a practical level. They inserted various physical attributes depending on who they imagined. “She looks like my nana…” for example.

    That is the exact response I wanted. I wanted the mother to be the person they imagined, not what I wanted them to see.

  2. My book group read a novel that had no physical descriptions of any characters, and it made no difference. Perhaps it even enhanced my imagination during the reading.

  3. This seems like priceless advice…I’ve suspicioned occasionally that anything I write needs to ‘leave room’ for the reader to ‘identify’ a character based on their world of experience with others, and I’m guessing that details which don’t help that process will begin to box-in and isolate a character from the reader’s possible range of experience.
    Details that do characterize must tag in to things we all know about people…fear, worry, hope, satisfaction, contentment, excitement, nervousness. Dry mouths, frozen frowns, twitches, generous acts, squinted eyes, wrinkled brows, soft touches, pats on the back–these tell us who someone is.
    But I’ve never really thought about it in picture books. I’ll be WAY more aware now of the place of these things in what I write. Thanks Mary. (Seven “thumbs-up” when he reads the blog, whispering a satisfied “a-hah.”)

  4. Great post. I wish I could send this to one of my beta readers, who expressed dismay that I didn’t describe what my character looked like in the first few pages.

  5. Hmm, I find this interesting since I struggle with not describing things, espeically visual details enough. Good reminder to make sure all description doesn’t only rely on the standard things we think of but things that characterize as well. I’ll try to keep this in mind as I’m working through sprinkling in more description this revision. Thanks, Mary!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *