The Essence of Character

Thanks to my wonderful brother and sister-in-law (that is to say, they are both wonderful, and English really needs a decent BODMAS system like Maths so that point would be clear from my wording), I am currently reading “What We See When We Read”, a fascinating study into how the mind of the reader actually takes in and digests the ‘images’ depicted by the words in front of us. It’s an interesting book, and all the more so for me because as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really see anything when I read or write, or indeed think generally. My mind’s eye is myopic to say the least.

But it’s interesting too, as a writer. We are often reminded that the “telling detail” is more valuable than a lengthy description.In a recent story, fellow Friday Fictioneer, Sandra, showed us a Vicar with a monumental overbite. It was a fantastic example of the value of a single detail, and would have worked just as well in a piece ten times the length, at allowing the reader to instantly picture (myopic mind’s eyes aside) the character. (Thanks to Dee for reminding me of the who and where of this great story).

All human characters have eyes, a nose, a mouth, two arms and legs; if they don’t then it need to be mentioned, but if they do we can take it as read, without reading it. Description is about setting the individual apart, about what makes him (or her) DIFFERENT, not the same. And I don’t think it matters to anyone as a reader if my vicar is different from the next person’s, and so on. Until someone comes to cast the film, there can be as many Harry Potters or Anna Kareninas or Aslans as there are people who’ve read or heard the story. They will have something in common, but in their entirety, they will be distinct.

By way of another aside (you can tell I’ve missed posting these rambles – my brain is trying to fit four posts into one!), the people of literature are not, I would say, generally beautiful. Neither Mr Darcy nor Mr Rochester is required to be handsome in print; their appeal lies in their characters, and in their actions and the strength of their emotions; no less so with Elizabeth Bennett or Jane Eyre. And yet, filmmakers and TV casting directors are desperate to present us with the beautiful people. Some of our greatest actors are eye candy, but one cannot help but respect those who aren’t, and who make it through talent and script-choice instead.

But digressing aside, these telling details, these individual traits that make characters jump from the page and into our imaginations, they are a goal for me as a writer. Since I don’t picture my characters, I often feel I have to work hard to depict them for the reader. In a sense, though, I am blessed: since I don’t see the eyes, nose and mouth of my characters, I am never tempted with a long-winded description; like some of the best writing, my mind sees only the occasional burn-scarred cheek or monstrous overbite!


Filed under Writing

6 responses to “The Essence of Character

  1. Thanks for the book title. I’ve been reading the James Frey you recommended a long while back. Your current read put me in mind of, which is a MOOC introducing cognitive poetics and “How do we read and model fictional minds?” It’s very accessible and looks how fictional characters can feel as real as family and friends we know.

  2. Dee

    Hi Jen
    The vicar with the ‘monumental overbite’ was in Sandra”s FF post last week, I think. Her blog is ‘castelsarrasin’ can’t remember the last bit.
    I enjoyed your post and can’t imagine what it must be like not to be able to ‘see’ your characters. You write so well, one would never know.

    • Thank you, Dee; I knew someone could remind me. I’d thought it was Sandra, but then couldn’t find the story. Poor effort on my part, now rectified and the piece amended.
      And thank you also for that last line – really gives me a boost.

  3. Fredrik Kayser

    My mind works similarly, not all the time but often enough. Interesting destinction between the telling detail and “detailed fluff.”

  4. Thanks for the pingback Jen, and thanks also to Dee for the reference. 🙂 Interesting post – I try not to think too much of the mechanics of the way I write – but it’s true that so much is conveyed by other means than addressing a litany of physical characteristics. I was half in love with both Rocheter and Mr D’Arcy before I was even part way through the stories – so much so that the film versions were a great disappointment to me. 😦

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