The best gift I’ve ever been given in my life cost five dollars. Yes, you read that right. I was fifteen, and trying out my brand-new culinary skills in my mother’s kitchen. Making large messes. Burning things. And learning what made up delicious food, and how to prepare it. I’d stir batters with my mother’s wooden spoons, stir up meat in the saucepan with a spatula, ask my mom how to do this or that. It was a beautiful time.
But, one day, I went to the drawer looking for cooking utensils, and they were gone. The wooden spoons I’d loved. When confronted, my mother told me she’d thrown them out. To say I was angry was an understatement.
Fast forward six months, on my birthday with my whole family gathered around. I opened up several presents – some expensive, some not – until I got to a plain white box that rattled. I opened it – and there, by the handful, was maybe a dozen brand new wooden spoons and spatulas. Even my fifteen year old coolness couldn’t keep me from crying with joy. She had remembered! When even I had forgotten. Despite all the years in between, I still have those spoons. I still cook with them. And my mother’s five dollars reminds me every day of those days in the kitchen.
What does all of this have to do with anything? It’s a story to illustrate that the key to writing, like giving great gifts, is in the details. Not just any detail anywhere, but the right detail. The personal one.
A lot of beginning writers – and many established ones – fall into the trap of describing their characters’ physical features in a laundry list. Her brown eyes. His blond hair. The chocolate color of her skin. His short height. Worse, his chiseled jaw. Her flaxen hair. Her ample bosom. His pocked face. Her square cheekbones. The trouble is, none of these details tell us anything about character.
Character. That thing your mother was always trying to instill in you. The reason – supposedly – my dad made me paint the outside of the house in August. Because it builds character. And what is character?
It’s not a laundry list of matter-of-fact details. It’s the person you are inside. And ultimately whether the people we write are good, bad, or somewhere in between, our readers will care about them because of who they are and not because of the shape of their cheekbones.
So how do we characterize? First, through choosing details that reflect character. Smile lines. Hearty laughter. Slumped posture. Workman’s hands. We can add basic characteristics along with them: overweight, perhaps. Forty-something. But only to the degree that those details will matter to the story and the society in which they live. A story set in China, for example, wouldn’t need to describe every character’s Asian features. It would be foolish, and serve no purpose other than illustrate the author’s background in an unflattering way. Choose details instead that reflect your character’s worldview and personality, things that he or she would notice.
Then, and more important, be specific in daily life. We learn people in real life through details, and it is no different on the page. He drinks black coffee. She laughs when she’s nervous. He eats a tangerine every day at 3:00 pm. She always wears scarves – and today didn’t. The more specific your details – and the more they tell us about your hero or heroine’s inner character – the more he or she will feel real to us. Good liars know this. Which sounds more believable when someone is late? “I got caught up in traffic” or “285 was a nightmare! That tracker-trailer accident backed us up ten miles at least”? Which would you believe more?
Pay attention to the little details in your character’s life, and to the details of your world. The more specific you can be in one or two telling details, the more real it will feel. Be careful, though, not to overwhelm the reader with a laundry list. Select a detail or two to start with and then show us the rest as the character interacts with the world. This is how we learn in real life, and it feels stronger and more compelling on the page.
What kind of details show your character’s inner self in action?