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Creating Characters–Is the Devil in the Details?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

earlytudorcostumeA somewhat controversial topic has been raised on one of my writers’ loops: the poster posed the question of whether giving specific descriptions of characters’ clothing and age is a convention of the romance genre, stating that she finds it annoying to have to read what color someone’s sweater is, and that a character’s specific age isn’t important unless it’s significant to the plot (i.e., a May–December romance). Several other people responded in agreement.

Here’s my take on it:

Because I’m a visually oriented person, I prefer to have more concrete descriptions of what people are wearing and what they look like. As an author, I have to know what my characters are wearing whenever they walk into the scene. Do I always mention it? No. But the specific details of what someone is wearing can say a lot about the character and who they are. A man who is almost never seen out of a full suit—designer, tailored for a custom fit—is different from a man who wears shapeless polos and worn-in jeans. Plus there’s the emotional (and sometimes physical) reaction we have when we see what someone’s wearing: we think he’s sexy or dignified or wealthy or poor or sloppy or clueless or nerdy or whatever. We all judge those around us not just by what they look like physically, but by the clothes they choose to wear—even if we’re not aware that we’re making those judgments—and it affects how we interact with people sometimes. That’s why I include descriptions of clothing in my writing, and why I prefer reading authors who do the same.

I also want to know how old the characters are—the age of the hero/heroine and approximate ages of those people around them. Age, like clothing, is a way of giving the reader a wealth of subconscious information about the character without having to spell it out. A thirty-eight-year-old is going to have a totally different outlook on life than a twenty-eight-year-old or an eighteen-year-old. From whom would you be more likely to seek advice on which investments to make in your 401k? On where the hottest place is to meet other young professionals? On what is of interest to today’s college student? Having the POV character estimate the age of someone they don’t know—whether they appear around the same age, much older, much younger—allows the reader to make certain assumptions about the secondary character along these same lines.

Now, all that said, I will say that I DO NOT believe that every character who walks into the scene needs to have a name, full physical description, and backstory, as I suffered through in Julie Garwood’s Shadow Music. She had characters crawling out of the woodwork, and then, after a paragraph or two (hopping into their POV), never showing up again. So there is an art to learning how much description is enough.

I touched on this subject in the Showing vs. Telling series (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and In the Eye of the Beholder) with examples from different authors who have woven the description of the character’s clothing in so that it becomes a description of the character. When used right, specific details of what the character chooses to wear can help set the scene, create a certain tone or mood surrounding the character, and give subconscious clues to who the character is.

You’re also going to find that the amount of detail that readers are expecting varies from genre to genre. Romance (especially historical), sci-fi, and fantasy tend to have a lot more physical description of the characters, and, to a lesser extent, the costuming and other personal details. Other genres, like mystery, thriller, or horror, may give only the details that are pertinent for the reader to know to draw certain conclusions or to get the feel for the peril or action the characters are experiencing.

What do you think? Do you like specific descriptions? I’m not talking about over descriptions, where each character’s outfit has to be described down to the last detail every time they walk on stage, but a few well-placed descriptions here and there.

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