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 Creating appearance and voice in your characters

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Jae Baeli
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PostSubject: Creating appearance and voice in your characters   Sun Jan 15, 2012 8:50 pm

Creating a character has many facets, and two of the most important ones are the way they speak, and the way they look.

The last thing you want is what is known as a cardboard character--one who is not differentiated from other characters, or one who is such a common one, as to become an archetype. Archetypes are important for the sake of universality in reaching the reader on a familiar level, but you must always give that character other elements that set him/her apart.

When I created the character of Jobeth O'Brien in Armchair Detective (book 1 of the AKA Investigations series), she had a distinctive voice and appearance. This was crucial, partly because the first book was in first-person POV, and that meant she had to be able to carry the story on her own. Her voice was just as distinctive in book 2, wherein I used both first-person and third-person omniscient POVs. In fact the very first chapter of Also Known as DNA (book 2) began this way:
Quote :
~ 1 ~

Ceremonial Tarp & Dangle

I'm hanging upside down, wrapped in tarp, like some retarded Houdini.

How did this happen? Well, it all started with me, on the way to my car after a close call. Back to minding my own business. I always mind my own business because I know there are plenty of other people out there who will mind it for me, if I let them, and I don't feel they're more qualified to fuck up my life than I am.

Only that morning, I was meeting with a client. Which was, in a way, minding someone else’s business. But that’s the business I’m in. So I can mind someone else’s business and be minding my own business.

Glad I got that cleared up.

Here's another passage that does the same thing:
Quote :


When I woke up in the abandoned factory, I was of course unaware that it was an abandoned factory because I couldn’t see through the tarp that had cocooned me, as I dangled in the air by my feet.

What would Jim Rockford do? I don’t think my fictional TV idol had ever been hung upside down with a tarp around him. So I had to just imagine what he would do. And first, he would wait until his captors took the tarp off. Then he would find a way to…to get away.

I am fucked.

But then I heard voices and knew that any escape would be something I figured out on my own without the aid of TV detectives and their clever screenwriters.

“Catch of the day,” one said.

I felt pressure near my chest and looked down, which was really up, due to my unfortunate inversion. I saw the blade poke through and rip an opening up over my head, as I leaned away from the sharp steel of the hunting knife. Blessed oxygen poured over my face and I sucked it in like a black hole.

Even upside down, I recognized Jimmy Dixon, his beefy countenance usually found only in livestock yards.

“How’s it hangin’, Sherlock?” he grinned.

With forced candor, I said, “I am not having a good day.”


At once, the reader knows that this character has a sarcastic sense of humor, and also a unique way of turning things over in her mind, finding connections. And this was more than a affectation--it was crucial to the nature of someone who was an Private Investigator.

As for appearance, often you only need a snippet here and there to give the reader an idea of your character's looks. It's also a good idea to integrate these descriptions within the story and not all in one place. It helps grow the character, just as someone might learn more and more about a person's appearance each time they are around them. Here's the first descriptive passage about that same character in book 1:

Quote :
Glancing in the rearview mirror, I noticed the circles under my eyes. Without them, I appear younger than my 28 years. My shoulder length brown hair and brown eyes grace a peaches and cream complexion and perpetually rosy cheeks. The small cleft in my chin adds a smidge of character. At five-four and one hundred twenty pounds, I am not as strong as I’d like to be, but have been described as tough. I can move quickly, and that is an advantage. My fight or flight mechanism usually leans toward flight.

There are also other subtle ways to give your reader an idea of what a character looks like without actually being literal. You can create an idea in the reader's mind based on archetypes, such as this passage about Jimmy Dixon, in Also Known as DNA:

Quote :
Lila Dixon’s plan to avoid discovery by her husband had apparently failed, I realized, her paranoia justified, as I saw him come in the front door, hairy knuckles dragging the floor, and recognized him from the photos. It was indeed the churlish one: Lila Dixon’s husband. The way he was looking at me during his approach made me realize he was on to me. He must have waited for her to leave, so he could rough me up, before going home to do the same to her. I pictured him chasing her with one of those cartoony Flintstones clubs. No time now to worry about her future roughing, I had my own to worry about.

And here's part of a scene also from DNA, where we see the juxtaposition of two different characters, and how they think and speak, from a third-person point of view:

Quote :
She thought of the woman’s name: Joyce Parks. I bet she does, Ginger mused, but not for a make-out session. Probably to eat French fries and watch other people exercise on her lunch hour. Jogging, to her, was likely a spectator sport.

Why did lesbians seem to think that passing the age of 40 was a license to let yourself go? Ginger worked out when she could make time, and she had a few extra pounds, but she carried them well; she most certainly didn’t let herself gain the equivalent of a small child. She walked three miles a day—snow, rain or sunshine. She made sure she ate healthy as much as possible. And she wore makeup. Not a lot of it, but enough so that there was no confusion about gender from clerks when she asked where the restroom was.

Now, Joyce fluffed her short gray hair, so unlike the long dark hair in the picture, and picked up the menu. “So, what’s good here?”

For you? The cucumber slices. Ginger checked herself. She was getting mean as time went on, but this song and dance had gotten on her last gay nerve. Where were the women like herself? “Everything here is good.”

“What are you having?”

“Caesar salad with grilled chicken.”

Joyce wrinkled her nose. “I think I’ll have the Snug Burger. That looks good. Or the Reuben.”

Ginger had had almost everything on the menu, but she didn’t have the heavier fare more than once a month. Perhaps Joyce didn’t either. Maybe I’m being overly critical. Just taking out my frustration about other dates on her. She took another breath and told herself to keep an open mind. “So, you’re in the corporate world?” Ginger prodded, playing off Joyce’s profile, which stated that she was in Executive Management.

“Yes. I take care of five managers at Xcel Energy.”

“Take care of?”

“Well, yes, administrative assistant to them. Boy they keep me running.”

So when she said she was in Executive Management, what she meant was that she managed executives. Meaning, secretary. Be nice, she reminded herself. “How long have you been doing that?”

“Oh, for about three years. Before that, I rescued horses.”

“Horses?”

“Yeah, I lived on a ranch in Castle Rock. My friend owned it. But it folded. Just not enough donations to keep it going. I got an apartment after that, since the house went into foreclosure. The economy sucks, doesn’t it?”

She was a glorified ranch hand. Now a secretary. Honest work, but not at all how she painted herself.

When the waitress came, Joyce ordered a pitcher of beer. A pitcher. And then she decided on the Snug Burger, add cheddar cheese, and could they pour cheese over the large order of fries?

Ginger had to laugh. If she didn’t, she’d cry.

Hopefully, this will shed some light on how to handle showing a character's appearance and manner of speech.

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