Characters, (you remember that we’re talking about characters this month, right?) are a complex creation. They must walk like real people, talk like real people, behave. This all takes time and hours of study. You must learn about psychology, language, and behavioral patterns. History doesn’t hurt either, along with a working knowledge of insert the thing your character knows more about than you do here. You’re going to be awfully busy, is what I’m saying.
With all of that to learn, it’s easy to forget one simple feature of a character; what they look like.
Now, this is a tricky one for me, so I do what everyone should do when things are hard for them. I practice a lot. How do you practice describing people? With a writers sketchbook.
A writers sketchbook is yet another theft from visual artists. They are never found without a sketchbook, after all, and you shouldn’t either. It can be a portion of your notebook if you like, doesn’t need to be a different book. In fact it probably shouldn’t be. After all, there is a limit to how much you can carry with you.
One thing to consider, though, is having some unlined paper with you for this experiment. If you’re the sketchy sort, you might want to have some illustrations go go along with your verbal sketches. Unlined paper isn’t required for this, but if you like it, you should use it.
Of course, you’re not relying only on visual sketches. You’re writing out a description of what someone looks like.
Sketch one- the basic description. Not a lot of explanation needed for this one. Look at someone in public. The old man sitting next to you in the coffee shop. The bus driver. The really irritating woman in the back of the bus who won’t stop having really personal cell phone discussions. They are all objects just waiting for you to describe them. You don’t have to be nice. Just describe what you can about the person, realistically. Try not to be flowery right now. That will come later. Just tell us how this person looks, good or bad.
Sketch Two- the flowery description. Now let’s have some fun. We’ve got our basic description, essentially what you’d give a cop who was looking for this person if they’d killed somebody. This time, we’re going to describe the person in a very poetic way. Fortunately, you’ve already got the basic description to work with, so you don’t need to have the subject in your sites while you write this one. Talk about hair that fell like straw, and the doughy skin that looked as though you could press your finger against it and leave an imprint. (I think I’ve mentioned before that I ride the bus a lot.)
Now, you do sketch one and two over and over. Do it on the little kids playing in the park and the old man reading an old magazine at the doctor’s office.
Remember, people are all characters. And in spite of what we say, you can tell a lot about a person based on how they look. A girl in sneaks and jeans is a different person than the girl in the heels. And skirt. For instance, guess which one’s more likely to cuss up a storm if they’ve got to walk a long while.
Carry a sketchbook with you for a week. Find at least three people to sketch. See how much it helps the next time you sit down to describe your character.