Clothes, Hair, and Introducing Your Characters

April 26, 2013

You’ve been at the grocery store. And something funny happened there, so funny that you want to tell your friends about it. It was so funny, it might be a story you tell to a lot of people. You may even use it in your novel.

So you sit around the lounge at your dorm, or the lunchroom where you work, or some other place you gather at regularly, getting ready to entertain everyone with telling this story. Your friends always like your stories, you’re a person who tells things well, people always listen because they can see you’re a storyteller.

This story from the grocery store has to do with a lady and her four-year-old. It’s hilarious.

Do you start the story like this:

 Standing in the check outline waiting for her turn to be rung up, this lady leans against her cart wearing her old work out clothes. A washed out, pale pink crop T-shirt, her midnight blue workout pants rolled down to show her stomach. Her simple white socks, extend up her ankles, in contrast to the black hair scrunchie which holds her blond bangs away from her forehead. She’s holding her son’s hand, He’s got red hair. And he’s dressed in little, brown Oshkosh bib overalls, with a yellow cowboy belt, along with black baby Nike shoes. Finally her turn at the register arrives…

 

Probably not.

There’s nothing hilarious about what they had on. The funny part was….

Novice writers open their novels with something like this example all the time. With what someone wore. Not why there are being introduced. Not the reason the character is there in the scene, doing something. No reaction from the character to some action for us to see or imagine. No purpose of their existence being illustrated. Just a presentation of the color of their hair, and sixty or more words about what they are wearing.

Novices,

if you see you’ve fallen into this default type of opening to your novel, try to re-vision your opening scene to give us why your character is there in that scene. Or what they are doing there. At the least, illustrate them so we feel we know something about their character, based on your descriptions.

Unless those workout pants and the cowboy belt are part of the hilarity of your scene, save those details, pepper them (lightly) into the action, reactions, motivations, or emotions of the story you’re showing us ‘in scene’.

Use the detail of your characters’ dress or hair color because it reveals something about them– do they consider themselves a fashion plate? That’s a perfect reason to detail their outfit.

Are they proud or vain? Okay, they show them reacting to how they feel about being dressed to the nines.

Wearing something because they just got paid and could now afford it? Did they run out to buy this thing they wear? Show us the purchase, and their feelings about ownership— don’t start and stop with the item, disclose what the purchase means to them.

Is their blonde hair jet black because they hate their parents this week? Does their makeup or nail polish show something about them beyond how they look?

Look at this example here, a few lines about sixteen year-old Cinda:

Cinda’s black bangs nearly covered her plucked eyebrows. The cap on her un-nerving black dyed hair read ‘Cin’ in red embroidered script.  She scratched at her ankle with short bitten nails painted a glossy shade of bruise purple.  A small, neat tattoo peeked out from under her busy fingertips: a tiny green frog. Her toenails were painted the same battered shade as her fingers.

This is nearly the same word count as the example above, but here, aside from seeing someone, we’re also given hints in her actions, in the verbs and adjectives used, about who this girl might be and how she might be acting. Along with getting how she wears her hair, eyebrows, and nails.

Do a search in your work – find those less than storytelling descriptions of clothes and hair color you’re telling us about.  Revise for the action, reactions, motivations, or emotions of the story you’re showing us.

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5 Responses to “Clothes, Hair, and Introducing Your Characters”

  1. Karlie Says:

    That’s something I need to work on – peppering the description throughout the actions instead of doing the info overload in the first sentences.

  2. Gus Sanchez Says:

    I like to keep descriptions about people’s physical appearances to a minimum, unless there’s something about their physical appearance that drives their character or motivation. That first paragraph you mentioned was way too much description for me; I would rather picture this character on my own terms, and let the author tell me more about the character’s motivations than what color their socks are.

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