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I remember reading The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway years ago and being amazed by the incredible depth of the characters. It was unbelievable because the book uses minimal character descriptions, yet I felt like I knew the characters. I flipped through the book, and realized how Hemingway defined each character. He described each individual character by writing about the way they moved. He threw in the minutiae of everyday tasks to reveal who his characters were. I knew how they smoked a cigarette. I knew how they got out of bed. I knew how they conducted themselves at meals. I knew the characters because I could picture them doing basic, unspectacular tasks.


The art of character description was an invaluable lesson for me to learn at the time because I was just trying my hand at this thing called writing. I had penned a couple of short stories by then and after reading The Sun Also Rises, I wanted to burn them. My stories were chock full of - and ruined by - character descriptions. Readers knew the weight, height, hair color, and shoe size of my characters. I didn't give readers any room to use their imaginations. I was so specific it was almost as if they'd have to know someone who fit my very detailed description in order to connect with the characters.


For me, I learned a great deal about style after reading Hemingway's classic novel. Detailed physical descriptions don't define characters. In fact, they become flimsy and two-dimensional if you overdo it. I much prefer to build characters through their movements and actions. I believe you can tell more about a character by what they do than what they look like. I'm not saying your book should be completely without physical descriptions of characters. Perhaps a baseline description should be established and the rest should be left to the reader's imagination.

How about you? How do you tackle the issue of defining characters in your novel?



Richard Ridley is an award-winning author and paid CreateSpace contributor.


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Nov 23, 2015 8:53 AM Ninian    says:

You made this post way back when but it still applies.  Good work.