This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
According to story consultant Michael Hauge, your job as a storyteller is to create images. Your readers, viewers, or listeners want to picture who is doing what. To succeed at that, all the elements of your story need to be clear and vivid. However, some writers have trouble developing unique characters that jump off the page.
General Details = Boring Characters
If you think your characters are bland and lifeless, they might be too generalized. Your details might be too broad to trigger a specific image, or they might not reveal enough to elicit an emotional response.
For example, characters that are defined only by their function—boss, mother, dentist, customer—are hard to picture and hard to invest in. Summaries don’t work, either— remember “show, don’t tell”? Don’t state a character’s personality, conflict, need, or desire without providing evidence to back it up (something you’re shown). Let readers see that your character is “vindictive” or “a local hero” or “from a hick town,” and don’t assume they’ll believe those descriptions just because you said so.
Irrelevant Details = Murky Picture
Here’s a sentence with specific detail: “Mary, a petite, red-haired debutante, grabbed her coat.” What’s the problem here? The details create an image, but the details are unimportant to the story—and they reveal nothing about the character.
You want to reveal two or three clear, succinct, vivid details that 1) paint a picture in the minds of your readers and 2) convey the essence of that character. You’re going for an external something and an internal something for your character.
Specific Details = Unique Characters
Be specific and creative. One example is clothing. What a person wears reveals far more about her than her height, build, and age. Imagine that a famous, beautiful movie star at the height of her fame went to the Academy Awards and wore a beautiful skirt by Valentino and a plain T-shirt from the Gap. What does that say about this person? (That’s what Sharon Stone did.)
Another example is movement. How a person enters a party, for example, is determined not only by their physicality, but their personality. When you’re writing, no one should ever “enter” a room. Does the guest burst through the door with an entourage? Does he stick his head in and scan the crowd before hiding behind a potted plant? Does she ride up the front steps on a horse?
Don’t Go Overboard
You don’t have to say—or describe—a lot to reveal something significant about your character. Provide just two or three distinct, specific details at the first mention so your readers can form an image. After that, you’ve got them hooked, and they’ll want to read more.
Michael Hauge writes articles and offers advice here. This post is adapted from one of his essays.