Writers are artists who paint images in the mind of a reader with little more than the written word. Powerful stuff. Though, our readers actually do a lot of the work.
Readers have this little thing called imagination that takes our words and plays it like a movie in their head. They don’t need us to tell them where every rock and stick is placed, nor they need us to describe every tenacious aspect of a character.
Recently I was listening to an episode of Writing Excuses, and author Victoria Schwab illuminated this topic of “character shorthand” for me.
So how exactly do we do use character short hand? How do we know the precise amount of detail to include to give our reader just enough character info and allow them to fill in the rest.
What is character shorthand?
Simply put, it is using a couple of quick distinct features to describe a character. This uses key attributes, instead of cataloguing every misplaced hair and article of clothing.
A couple of literary examples:
- Kaz Brekker Six of Crows – Crow-topped cane, black-leather gloves, terrible haircut
- Harry Potter Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – Wire-framed spectacles, lightning-bolt scar, his mother’s eyes (unless it’s the movie)
- Holden Caulfield The Catcher in the Rye –Red winter cap, shaggy hair, messenger bag
- Katniss Everdeen The Hunger Games – Wavy brown hair, bow & arrow, mockingjay pin
- Frodo Baggins The Lord of The Rings – Short, barefoot, carries the one ring to rule them all and a tiny sword
Make it memorable
Memorability is really the core of the apple of this topic. I plucked this idea from an episode of Writing Excuses about writing ensemble casts, which requires lots of people and character descriptions being tossed around. A reader’s brain can only handle so much description. When it comes down to it, the reader will take away small pieces that stick out to them.
Memorability can also come from how extrinsic details relate to intrinsic characteristics.
Tie physical description with story development
When describing a character’s appearance, it’s useful to show their scars. This can be literal. If your character has a physical scar (hello Harry Potter), then there’s going to be something that caused it. Since scars are marks from the past, they are great ways to hint at something that happened during their backstory.
But scars don’t have to always be skin deep. Evidence of emotional wounds can be shown in other ways, like a symbolic piece of clothing or a totem. This is done really well in Six of Crows with Kaz Brekker and why he perpetually wears gloves (my heart still breaks for it).
Use intriguing language
Unique and flavorful descriptions will stand out. These are accomplished by using rich descriptive details. You can get granular, describing specifics like materials. You can also use an analogy that describes characters while connecting it to the protagonist or other story elements.
i.e. she wore a dress the color of the theater curtains the night he took his final bow.
The use of strong, visceral language will help paint the portrait of your story. The better a reader can create an image in their mind, the more memorable a character will be.
Beware of Purple Prose– Look out for instances of overly poetic words and phrases when simpler terms will do.
Show, don’t tell!
Queue the broken record. But this is the number one rule for a reason.
What’s great about character shorthand is that its nature forces the writer to weave these breadcrumbs of description into the action threads of the story. While “showing” usually takes more words than “telling”, these brief insertions of character attributes will aid the “showiness” of your scene by adding extra texture and flavor while keeping brevity in mind.
Describe the unusual details
Describe an aspect of a character that the reader might not be expecting. It is pretty standard to describe hair color, eye color, height, and weight, but few readers will anticipate a character’s bony kneecaps or star-shaped mole above an eyebrow.
Keep in mind, when you call attention to something unique, you are putting a spotlight on it. I recommend that this––like all inclusions of your story––should serve a purpose. That way, if you call attention to that star-shaped mole, it could later be an identifying feature that picks a character out of a line-up.
Include other visual clues
Physical description doesn’t always have to be what the person looks like or is wearing. You can use your character shorthand to describe how a character acts, carries themselves, or interacts with a space.
Incorporate other senses
Physical character descriptions don’t always have to be visual. It can also be impactful to use other sensory clues, such as how their voice sounds or how they might smell. However, I doubt taste will be much of a factor, unless one of your characters is Hannibal Lecter. Don’t be afraid to tap into your other senses for descriptions.
The importance of brevity
Long-winded prose can be exhausting. And if you are describing a lot of characters, it can get down-right confusing. Keeping things clean and brief ensures that you’re capturing the attention of your reader and holds it. So that’s why it behooves you to refine how you describe a character down to those most vivid, intriguing, and memorable details.
Brevity allows a reader to laser focus on specific cues, and gives you control how the reader is led through the narrative, while also giving them the freedom to engage and internalize with your story.
Readers have incredible imaginations, let them use it!
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