Recently my illustrator, Steve Markey (who brilliantly brings my characters to life), asked me to describe the characters in my newest book, The Mystery of the Square Well, so he could draw them for the Bring Your Characters to Life, book I wrote to go with it. He asked, “What do your characters look like?”
Hmmm, I had to think about that one for a minute. That’s because you see, I didn’t really know what they looked like. I know that seems strange, but I don’t usually see my characters drawn on paper. When I’m writing a book, I have a picture of them in my head, and describe the essence of them in detail to the reader. But I leave it up to the reader to decide what they look like…to them. Remember, a character’s description may bring up a different mental picture in the reader’s mind than it does in the writers.
When I bring my characters to life (Character sketch), I write down their names, their ages, more about what they do, and what they say. But then I dig deeper by developing their traits…how they speak, how they move; what makes them who they are. You can tell a lot about someone by what they say and do. I also look at their facial expressions, and see what they do with their eyes. Then I come up with a wardrobe for them, and give them quirky character tags, to complete the picture of who they are as a person. So it is much more involved than just what they look like.
So I described my four most important characters to him. After I finished, I went back and looked at the descriptions. It had a lot more than just what they looked like, but more of the essence of who they were inside. Funny how I knew all of that without even knowing what they really looked like. Strange? No, because they are real people to me.
So here’s how I described my cast of characters from the Mystery of the Square Well:
Uncle Joe is thirty-five-years-old, and built like a linebacker. He has light brown hair and blue eyes. He’s funny, adores his niece and nephew, is energetic, smart, humorous, helpful and kind. He is a paranormal expert, and the host of the TV show, Famous Ghosts as Hosts. He truly cares about the ghosts he discovers. They are not just a project to him. He always wears his signature belt buckle with his name, JOE on it. It is his character tag (more about character tags later).
Alicia is twelve-years-old, and is in the 6th grade. She has blue eyes and long, dark brown hair. She is smart, and the thinker in the book…always recapping in her mind and evaluating, which helps the reader keep pace with the plot. When she smiles it’s from ear-to-ear. She is a fashionista, and paints her fingernails to match what she’s wearing. She always wears one piece of clothing out of character, like a weird belt, or hat. She wears these quirky neon green hiking boots. She can be terrified in a situation, but will still move forward. She is scared of the concept of ghosts on the Estate, but will not give in to the fear.
Mike is ten-years-old, and is in the 4th grade. He has sandy blonde hair, and blue eyes. He is tall and lanky. He wears round glasses. There is nothing bad in his universe. He dresses like a fashion nightmare. He never matches his clothes or socks. He always has his backpack with him. He molds pipe cleaners into creepy creatures (Character tag). They’re always sticking out of his pockets . He has his beloved camera with him at all times. He is extremely interested in science and nature. He’s not very coordinated, so if you hear someone trip over a stump, or back into a picker bush, it will be Mike. In nature, he is completely fearless.
Mr. Ernie is forty-years-old, a mountain of a man, with a very gooey center. He’s about 6′ 4″. He has a short, reddish-brown beard, and wears a gray, county uniform. He always wears his safari hat. He wears his reddish-brown hair pulled back into a short ponytail. He has a ruddy complexion from years of being outdoors, and working in the sun. He always wears police sunglasses. He carries a radio on his belt (character tag), to communicate with other workers on the Estate.
I wanted Mr. Ernie to be a big man with gentle ways. Because he was going to be the kids’ protector while they were time-traveling, I wanted the reader to know that he stood up to the job. In the Mystery of the Square Well, I said his hand was the size of a meat platter. What picture comes into your mind? That he’s a really big man? I make several references to his size to give the reader a sense of his girth.
Character Tags: I like my characters to have character tags to help the reader know it’s them, even if they’re not speaking. In my book, Fort Comradery – The Secret Fort, Big Bill who was one of my bad guys, was so big that when he walked or ran, his keys would jingle on his belt. It got so that all I had to do was say the keys were jingling, and my readers automatically knew that Big Bill was coming. Used carefully, character tags add dimension to your characters and enable your reader to tell them apart.
What about the shark in the movie, JAWS? The music was so compelling that you knew the shark was coming even though you didn’t see him for most of the movie.
Do you, or someone you know have a character tag? Check out people you know and people you don’t know. We all have traits and some of them can be funny, and some can be aggravating.
What is it that gives someone a character tag? A way of speaking? A scent? Rapid blinking? Jingle their change in their pocket? An accent or dialect? Now that I’ve planted the seed, see what you see. Try not to giggle or laugh though, someone else might not get the joke.
Posted In: Kid's Mystery Books
Tags: Books, Bring Your Characters To Life!, Character Sketch, Character Tags, Characterization, Characters, Movies, The Mystery of the Square Well, What Do Your Characters Look Like?, Writer