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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Shannon Leigh on giving Character to her Characters

Giving character to my characters...

Sounds simple enough, right? But have you ever read a book that by the end, the only thing you really remember about the main characters is their names? Heck, sometimes I can’t even remember that!

So what is it about some stories that really draw you in? Plot? Sure. A good plot will get your attention. But if the characters lack any individuality or detail, can the plot still give the book what it needs to make it stick with you a while after you’ve reached THE END? Or does it just end up in an ever-growing "I've already read that and won't read it again" pile?

On the flip side of things, great character development with a terrible plot will likely turn you off as well. But that’s a post for another time. Today I want to focus on some of the basics of how I build characters that my readers can love.

I'm going to focus on the physical aspects of my character. Easy enough. So let’s say I’m writing a romance novel and my character descriptions go as follows:

He was tall, handsome, and had an air about him that drew women like moths to a flame.  

She was shapely and beautiful; he wanted her from the start.

I suppose that’s enough to give you a fair amount of detail.  At this point, you're likely picturing what those descriptions mean in your mind. Every reader will picture something different. Are these characters appealing? Sure, you're imagining them how you want. Are they interesting? Not really. They sound like every other character in every other romance book you've picked up. So what would make them stand out? What would make you as a reader envision exactly how the character looks in my, the author’s, eyes?

I start with the basics:

Complexion: What does their skin look like? Is it smooth? Does the man have a beard? Stubble? Are her cheeks rosy? Sallow? Like porcelain?

What about color? Does she have olive colored skin? Pale? Ivory? Is he tanned? Translucent? (yes, I've seen translucent used for vampires).

How about flaws? Come on folks, not everybody is perfect. In fact, after reading so many books about “perfect” characters, they kinda get boring after a while. Characters need flaws, whether physical or emotional, to give them depth and make them unique. So how about a scar? Or maybe rough skin? Acne scars (don’t forget, you have to describe your bad guys/girls as well). Birthmark?

Eyes: Color is usually a given. Most authors name eye color at some point in the story. As a personal opinion, earlier is better than later. The longer I delay giving you a detailed description, the more you’re going to envision the characters how you want. If halfway through the book you’ve decided the man has shoulder-length brown hair and dark eyes (because the cover depicts him as such, and we all know covers aren’t always accurate to a tee), then I announce he has short, dark blonde hair and green eyes, you're likely going to feel like you’ve just had the rug pulled out from under you. The hero is going to feel like a stranger. I don't know about you, but I hate when that happens!

So let’s discuss eyes. Aside from color, what else? What about shape? Are they almond? Cat-like? Thin? Rounded? Are they rimmed with dark lashes? Hooded? Are there bags under their eyes? Sometimes the first glimpse at the character isn’t always when he/she is at their best.

Nose: What kind of nose does the hero/heroine have? Thin? Narrow? Flared? Slightly crooked? Strong? Grecian? Wide? I might even get more detailed and describe the bridge separately from the nostrils, as long as it's pertinent. Sometimes too much description can be just as annoying as not enough. I seriously doubt you want to read three paragraphs that describe nothing but the characters schnoze; a sentence or two should suffice. 

Lips: Ahhh… One of our favorite parts of the face. But what kind of lips do my characters have? Generous? Full? Thin upper lip and full bottom? Pouty? Heart-shaped. Wide? Small? Don’t forget lips have color as well. Some are beige; some are pink, red, brown, gray, purple (depending upon the scene). You wouldn’t have a character who’s just fallen into an icy river emerge with red lips and rosy cheek. That would make no sense what so ever. They’re likely going to have a gray or ashen skin color, and purple lips.

Hair: Again, most authors as some point define their characters' hair color. But what about the texture? Is it coarse, silky soft? Thin? Thick? Curly? Straight? Long? Short? Does it hang in their eyes? Curl around their temples? I recently read a series of books where the author described her characters fairly enough. But one character really stood out to me. Why? Because his hair was always in his eyes, like he was hiding something. She still hasn’t defined what and I’m dying to know. Hopefully she’s working on book 6 and my curiosity will be satisfied. Anyway, my point being, sometimes even just their hair can be a defining characteristic that gives them character.

Body Type: *rubbing hands together* The fun stuff. Alright, I gotta admit, I won’t be as turned on by a hero with a beer belly and scrawny legs. Yes, I want the Adonis. But, that’s not to say he has to be perfect or that if he is, you can skimp on his description. What is it about him that makes him perfect? Does he have mile-wide shoulders? An expanse of chest sprinkled with curling wisps of dark hair (see, hair applied here too!). Do his pecs dance as he flexes those mounds of man flesh? Don’t forget to make him proportioned.  He can’t be ripped with bulging muscles on top, then have nice legs and a trim waist below. Huh? I’m envisioning Johnny Bravo here (cartoon character for anyone who doesn’t know. Look on youtube, they have a bunch of his cartoons. They're hilarious!). If he’s lean, make him lean all over. Maybe he’s not a hunk of stud-muscle with bulges threatening to bust through is clothes. Maybe he’s just fit and trim. That’s okay, just describe him in a manner that makes him sound fit and trim.

Body Parts: I shudder to dive in to this one. Depending on where your mind is, this has many options. I'll start with the heroine. Let’s face it, not all of us are gifted with big bazongas.  Some of us have bee stings, other have watermelons. Just make it fit. Don’t describe your heroine as 5-foot-nothing, 100 pounds, and packing cantaloupes. She’s gonna need a wheelbarrow as well. That or major back surgery. Yes, some little women are Baywatch babe material, but make it believable. 

What about those heroes? Are they all massively endowed? Please. Let’s be realistic. If every guy I write about has the potential to render his female counterpart unable to walk, then you're gonna get bored. As with breasts, there’s a difference between being nicely sized and “wanting to run the other direction” sized. I suppose the exception would be if that was my male character’s main dilemma.  Maybe he needs to find him an Amazon woman who can handle him. Okay, getting off tract here!  

For any character, male or female, hero/heroine, bad guy/girl, I start at the top and work my way down, hitting on the things that I want the reader to zero in on, the things that make the character who they are, the things that give him/her character.

Before I end here, let’s revisit those two descriptions I gave earlier:

He was tall, handsome, and had an air about him that drew women like moths to a flame.  

She was shapely and beautiful; he wanted her from the start.

Taking my own suggestions to heart, I think I can do a little better:
Shannon’s perusing gaze zeroed in on the man who entered the bar. Were he any taller, he’d have had to duck to cross the threshold.  His black hair swept back from his face in a crest and hung to his broad shoulders in large, silken waves, its color so pure it looked almost blue in the twinkling disco lights. His heavy brow and hooded eyes gave her a sense of unease, their intensity almost predatory as he scanned the room.

When he suddenly looked over at her and their eyes met, she felt an overwhelming urge to run across the floor and throw herself at his feet. He had a virile air about him that undoubtedly drew women like moths to a flame. Having already experienced the unpleasant feeling of being burned by one handsome man, Shannon quickly looked away. She had no desire to be hurt again.
After settling his large frame in a vacant chair, Keith scanned the other tables, looking for a donor. Several days had passed since he’d fed; he had to find one tonight. His stomach growled in agreement.  

His perusal landed on a slim blonde at the bar. Her long, golden locks hung down her slender back in ringlet curls, almost childlike in appearance. His investigation lingered on the exposed flesh above the low waistband of her jeans. Its smooth, ivory texture looked creamy and flawless, like freshly poured buttermilk. He wondered if it felt as soft as it appeared.

As though feeling his scrutiny, she turned and they locked gazes. His breath hitched in his chest. Her cat-like, green eyes sparkled with attraction as she appraised him in return. Her attention dropped to the drink in his hand, then lowered to his groin. His cock hardened in response. He caught the hint of a faint blush on her delicate cheeks before she looked away. He wanted her; she was perfect.

Ta da! Much better. Hey, I might just keep that and use it in a book! If anyone has any input/suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Shannon Leigh
“Giving readers the O in their erOtica”

*Note: pics borrowed from Photobucket.



heather said...

Lol, I loved this post :)

Shannon Leigh said...

Thanks, Heather. I'm so glad you liked it.

The Happy Booker said...

Great advice, I love the way you showed how to meld all of those details together to show the character. Another thing I think is important is gestures that are theirs alone. For example, maybe she bites her lip when she's nervous, or maybe he locks his jaw when he's angry. This also adds to my visualization of the character and their personality.

Donna Smith
ahappybooker at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. Creating characters requires an eye for detail. It must be fun to design a person from scratch.

User1123 AT comcast DOT net

Leanne109 said...

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm Heroes, seems to me you have some hot ones!

Cathy M said...

I really liked your post, and that blurb was perfect.

caity_mack at yahoo dot com

Robin said...

I want to read the book those two are in! :-)

Robin D
robindpdx (at) yahoo (dot) com

Na said...

The characters are definitely what makes me want to read a story. I like ones that have unique traits and strong personalities. That's what makes them memorable to me. Even better is a story where even the secondary characters stand out. I will even like a predictable read and a dull plot if the characters make my time worthwile.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great lesson! That was just perfect.