Describing Your Characters

             How Your Characters View Themselves
                                  
By Jeff Salter 

Too perfect?
            First off, let me clear the air:  a lot of authors write characters who are too beautiful or too handsome — entirely too perfect.  There:  I said it.  Now I’ll be banned from every blog … and no publisher/agent/editor will touch me with a ten-foot pole.  [Good grief.]
            Having leveled that charge, I must admit my own female protagonists (i.e., ‘heroines’) are lovely.  Not perfect … but pretty and shapely.  [Sue me.]  My male protagonists, however, are considerably less than lovely.  In six completed manuscripts, I have not written a single man with a flawless face from GQ or six-pack abs from the muscle magazines.  My guys have been around the block a few times … and it shows. 

How do you describe your characters for the reader?
            The Resident Foxes have done a superb job this week discussing how NOT to describe characters in fiction.  In my remarks on those other blogs, I’ve already revealed a few things about my approach.  Here’s another:
            Once – in my very first manuscript – I actually did use the heroine’s reflection … but it was in a storefront window rather than a mirror.  And she was walking by on the sidewalk as she saw herself (and – for the reader’s benefit – described herself briefly).  But in my other manuscripts the reader usually learns what my major characters look like through dialog or observations of other characters.  Occasionally, a physical characteristic is revealed by a brief insertion from the objective narrator.  [Yeah, I know — sue me for that also.]
            Anyway, since this territory has already been better covered by the Foxes this week, the Hound will veer to something tangential. 

In the course of your novel, do your heroes/heroines ever view themselves differently?
            I’m not just talking about your character enduring a ‘bad hair day’ or having to wear an unflattering outfit (for whatever reason).  I mean:  do they have a phase when they just feel unattractive?  Or, conversely, do they usually consider themselves pretty darned ordinary but suddenly feel radiant or desirable?  Why?  What’s different?
            I pose these questions because I recall times in my own life when I felt gawky or geeky … or otherwise ‘unattractive’.  Sure, some of this was during adolescence, but there have also been times as an adult when I’ve felt similarly.  [So … is this T.M.I.?  Am I the only one?]  Conversely, there have been times – albeit rare – when I’ve seen myself in a different, much more positive light and thought, “Hey, you ain’t so bad.”  OR  “Dude, you’re holding your own compared to THAT bunch.”
            I’ll wager many – perhaps most – of us go through phases when we view ourselves differently.  It’s probably not an abrupt physical change as much as it is a waver in our perception or self-image … or even in our self-esteem.  Or not — I’m no psychologist.

If your character goes through such awareness, how do you show it in your fiction?
            But IF it’s a fairly normal part of human nature for us to have occasional flickers in our self-image, do our characters ever experience something similar?  Is it logical / realistic for our characters to be so perfect and so consistent in their own self-image?
            Perhaps it is.  If so, disregard this blog — “this [text] will self-destruct in ten seconds.”
            Otherwise, consider the questions below.

Questions
            Have you ever felt gawky or geeky … or otherwise unattractive?  When?
            Have you ever felt suddenly radiant or desirable?  When?  Why?
            Do you assess your own appearance based on other people you know, went to school with, or see on the street?  Or do you weigh your looks against movie stars and other celebrities?
            How much of your own appearance do you write into your heroine?

            I’m Jeff, the Hound on Thursdays.  Each month I have a Guest Fox and there’s a real treat scheduled for May 26 (in two weeks).  Also once every month, I include a glimpse of my poetry (whether you like it or not).

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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29 Responses to Describing Your Characters

  1. Tonya Kappes says:

    Very interesting, Jeff. I’m not saying my characters are ugly, but I tend to leave a lot of the physical features out such as “beautiful, stricking, etc….” I might describe, “long dark hair dripped down like a waterfall.” My characters have to go through character growth since I write women’s fiction. In my debut novel, Carpe Bead ‘Em, Hallie has to come to terms with her past and present crossing paths in order to move into her future. I think that is more beautiful than the physical.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Very good points, Tonya. And an excellent distinction between one’s physical appearance and one’s internal beauty. [Or ugliness, when applicable.]
      So far, in my unpublished characters, I tend to think ‘less is more’ for physical description. I want the reader to invest enough in my characters to form a picture of what these individuals look like (to some extent anyway).
      Thanks for visiting today while you’re busy on edits.

      Like

  2. danicaavet says:

    I don’t like perfect characters either…okay, my heroes are ripped and hot, but they’re emotionally or mentally flawed (not crazy mind you). My heroines, on the other hand, tend to be more ordinary, or don’t fit the classic definitions of perfected beauty.

    And sure, they feel unattractive, or uneasy in their own skin. It’s what makes them seem more human. They can be clueless about how attracted their love interest is in them.

    These are all excellent points, Jeff!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Interesting, Danica, that you write women with ‘more ordinary’ features and I write men with ‘more ordinary’ features. But we each write the opposite gendered characters as reasonably ‘hot’. LOL
      And I completely agree about writing our characters as ‘human’ — unless, of course, you’re dealing with shape-shifters, werewolves, and other creatures. Ha. Of course, even with such ‘un-human’ characters, it’s their struggle with their HUMAN aspects which make them compelling to many readers.

      Like

  3. Laurie Ryan says:

    I don’t think I write my own appearance into my characters, but you bring up a really good point about bad hair days. I’m not sure I have them slip off that “almost perfect” pedestal often enough. So thanks for the reminder to make sure they are human. 🙂

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Hi, Laurie … thanks for visiting again. I appreciate your interest in, and support of, our group blog.
      Yeah, since our readers are human, and most have typical frailties (at least occasionally), I believe readers will more readily identify with heroines/heroes who — every now and then — also lapse from the ideal.
      For example, in most of my six manuscripts, my protagonists have to go the bathroom occasionally. No, I don’t guide the reader INTO the bathroom to witness what they’re doing, but I think it’s logical and appropriate to demonstrate that they have mondane human functions.
      It always bugs me — about movies — that the principal characters usually wake up in the morning and don’t need to use the bathroom … and never brush their teeth before they start kissing their lover.
      Morning breath is atrocious and my characters often pop in a TicTac. ha.

      Like

  4. The female main characters in both of my books are “realistically” attractive. They are not stunning/super-modelish but they are good looking women more than capable of obtaining superficial interest from men – but not every man they encounter because that’s not realistic. I don’t write about women who turn heads everywhere they go or use their looks to get what they want. The insecurities they deal with are not about how they look but what they feel they have to offer on a deeper level. None of my female characters are constantly on diets or in need of makeover, but one is worried she can’t hold a man’s attention for long and the other is consumed with controlling everything that she forgets there are two people (at least) in every relationship. Similarly, the men in my books are average to good looking guys but not muscle men or GQ models. I try to keep my books as relatable as possible so that my readers feel like they are reading about friends. In most cases, how they look is described through other character’s dialogue but I have scenes where they look in the mirror as well – I don’t see why that is a problem and neither of my editors removed those scenes. But then again, I don’t pay attention to all of the “do’s and don’ts – I’ve been told I have an engaging and original voice and am afraid reading all of these articles will result in losing it. But I digress – to answer your questions, I have often felt unattractive and I have often felt dazzling and sometimes I felt both within ten minutes of each other. And yes, it is often because of someone else’s reaction to me. Sadly – I do seek validation from others… (But I never compare myself to movie stars – they are paid to look a certain way and their livelihood depends upon it. They also have resources not available to me. There is no point in comparing!)

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Thank you, Meredith, for that fullsome reply.
      From what you indicate about the way your draw characters, I think I’d enjoy reading them. Not only is ‘perfection’ unbelievable, but it’s boring.
      When I was a kid, I watched Tarzan movies and I wanted to be like him — look like him, possess his abilities, live in his super cool tree house, etc.
      Now that I’ve grown up, I don’t still expect to ever like Tarzan … but I’d STILL love to have his tree house!

      About the NUMEROUS dos and don’ts — I agree and I don’t put all that much stock in them unless it’s about the specifications established by whomever I’m preparing a query for.
      I truly believe that — for many of those RULES — their main ‘use’ is for contest judges to hammer our manuscript entries. LOL
      Thanks for visiting again.

      Like

  5. Interesting, Jeff! I don’t know if I can answer your questions in a precise way, but I can say this. My characters are never perfect, but they (ultimately) also see past one another’s imperfections or even come to love them. Not unlike real life, of course, where your “perfect” match (this, I do believe in, as I wake every day to my HEA) isn’t so much a perfect individual, but one who compliments who you are. I suppose it’s more of a perfect compatibility, LOL. But to your question, my characters do face and cope with insecurities within the pages of my books, and I’m not sure how else I could write them. ;c)

    As for a perfect person … ultimately, a truly perfect person would have to be the most annoying one on earth, and, well, that makes them NOT perfect after all. LOL.

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Sarah, I have an example of your statement about coming to love another person’s imperfections.
      The heroine of my first three novel ms. — Kelly R. — has a scar on her upper cheek, near her eye socket … from an incident in the second novel. Her lover, Mitch, remarks that it’s one of the places (on her) that he loves to kiss.
      Of course, in context of their dialog it doesn’t sound quite that sappy. LOL.
      Yes, truly perfect people are incredibly annoying.
      Thanks for commenting today.

      Like

  6. UGH! I’m always feeling pretty good about myself until I DO look in the mirror and then I think, “Dear God, what the hell happened?” I never think about my looks til I see myself in passing and then I feel like I need to hide in a cave. So, no, I never write my own looks into a character. None of my characters are perfect but I do like a nice chest and forearm on my heroes! As well as a strong thigh.

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  7. everwriting says:

    Those are some hard questions, Jeff. I have to admit they are right there, most of the time I meet myself in the mirror. I’ve felt gawky since I was twelve and had the biggest feet in my class. Radiant when I meet myself in my husband’s eyes. My looks nemesis is my niece – we have similar features but heck, they look really good on her!
    As for writing myself into my female characters it’s more about ‘character’ than looks. It’s safe for me to say that my heroines don’t see themselves (except as I’ve already confessed in previous comments), they are more likely to question themselves.

    Like Meredith and Sarah, I create characters you can meet and think, ‘I know that person’ or ‘she’s like me’. I admit that a lot of romance heroines make me gag. They are so fake, no one can relate to them. My male characters are ordinary guys, pleasant on the eye but no muscle-bound body-builders with brains the size of sunflower seeds. I like big doses of reality with my HEA. Otherwise, we’re talking fantasy.

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Leigh, very thought-provoking replies. Thanks.
      I love your phrasing about meeting yourself in your husband’s eyes … sounds like true love.
      And, yes, I believe we should be about crafting characters with ‘life’ rather than focusing mostly on their looks.
      I definitely agree the mark of a truly successful ‘character-crafting’ is that the reader would love to have that individual as a buddy. Or, as a lover.
      Thanks for posting today.

      Like

  8. Dianne B,aikie says:

    First, I really enjoy this blog. I am an avid reader, but do not have a book in me. I don’t mind a ‘strong chest, forearm and thigh’, but that will never keep my interest in either a fictional character or a live person. I need substance, common sense and an absence of trickery to truly connect and care about the character.

    I have definitely felt unattractive, but to paraphrase what was previously mentioned, I am a goddess in my husband’s eyes. Nothing can top that!

    Thanks for the great blog!

    Like

    • Thanks for coming by Dianne. I agree with you that characters need more than looks to hold the interest of the reader. This week’s topic just happens to be on the physical descriptions. We have a topic each week that each of us 4 foxes and the hound expound on in his/her own way. Check back soon as we’ll be discussing other characteristics. AND I love that you’re a goddess to your spouse. That’s awesome!

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    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks for visiting, Dianne … hope you’ll come back often. Each week is a different topic and each topic has at least five different ‘takes’ on it. We have a blast and you’re welcome any day. I’m here on Thursdays, so that’s your SPECIAL invitation.
      Yeah, I love that you’re a goddess in your husband’s eyes. In fact, I’ve caught him on FB basically saying that very thing.
      “Substance” is something all writers should strive for in our characters.

      Like

  9. Once again, Jeff doth stir the pot!

    Love this! These are the questions that make us consider our COMPLETE character! I have a WIP with a true role reversal– a really ripped male lead who wants to be recognized for his mind, but people can’t get past his physicality — and who exhibits characteristics based on two people I actually know. Or rather their struggles to be seen as something more than their bodies! One is the only guy I know with a genius IQ that maintains a cover model body with no effort. He’s one of those rare male specimens who’s just naturally, genetically buff. Didn’t help much that he got into dancing in college (yes, male stripper!) because he could make $300 with a thirty minute routine at a bachelorette party, instead of 25 hours at a part time job that would cut into his study time. He honestly knows what it feels like to be dismissed as nothing but a body (sound familiar, ladies?)–after all, the old adage is ‘All brawn, no brain’, right? I would laugh so hard I’d cry when he’d complain to me and tell me his pitiful stories. The other guy worked surveillance at a casino I worked at, and would literally cause fender benders when he’d run shirtless and in shorts through downtown Lake Charles. Used to laugh hysterically at that too. (He had that smoldering ‘I’m-trouble-don’t-mess-with-me’ aura, and scared the heck out of me the first time he stood at the end of my dice pit, staring.) Turned out he noted some potential trouble and came down to offer his help if I needed it. Never thought I looked that helpless; but all the guys in the dice pit were protective. If they only knew . . . lol

    So I used bits and pieces from their experiences and added a lot of imaginiation to have this big, buff guy who keeps asking a plaintive “Why can’t she see the real me? The one on the inside, under all these muscles?”, and I’m having some real fun with him!

    So I’d probably have to say I play more on the emotional insecurities we all experience to keep my characters real and human– even if they are Werewolves!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Runere, I think most any reader would identify with ’emotional insecurities” since, as you say, we all have them.
      I really like that ‘role reversal’ idea … sounds very refreshing in a literary world filled with predictability. Of course, when werewolves are involved, I guess ‘predictable’ is out the window. Ha.
      So … we’re finally getting a little back-story on Runere. You were a dealer at a casino? Cool. Post pix.

      Like

  10. Daisy Harris says:

    The most fun I ever had with character description was in showing my Shark Bait heroine, the dragoness Sophia. Yes, she looked in the mirror at the start of the book- but entirely to criticize herself. Then her mom walks in and criticizes her even more.

    She’s small and timid for a dragon, and hence has a very low self-image. But later, when she leaves dragon society and shifts into human she meets the hero who thinks she’s adorable, and really likes that she’s pliable. (Tee hee hee.)

    That’s the thing- what’s ugly to one group of people might be beautiful to another. I had that experience myself around 14. I was freakishly tall and filled-out in my Jr. High, and felt extremely ugly. Then I went away for a summer trip w my family and found that to people who didn’t know my age I was actually pretty attractive. Just in a “grown up” way, not a “girl in 8th grade” kinda way.

    Similarly, surrounded by Dutch people, who tend to be very tall and very blonde, I’m frumpy as heck! But if I went to Japan I’d be like “Aryans on parade!”

    It’s all a matter of comparison. 🙂

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Very good points, Daisy. The context in which we find outselves can greatly affect not only the impression we make (on the others in that context) … but it can affect our own self-image as well.
      So, Sophia is ‘pliable’. Hmm.

      Like

  11. Bethany says:

    My heroines sometimes look like me, but more often look different from me. Not for any reason except that it’s just how I picture them.

    Yes, I’ve felt gawky–mostly in high school. (Who didn’t in high school, though?)

    The date I remember feeling the most radiant was on my wedding day (yeah, it’s cliche, but it’s true) There are times I feel desirable and raidant (both before and after my wedding) but that’s one day that sticks out in my head of when I really and truly felt that way no matter of any annoyance I felt, no matter what else was going on…I was very excited about getting married and very happy to be a bride. Now I’m happy to be a wife and Mama…so there are days I feel radiant and desirable and days I don’t. (I guess that’s pretty much how most people feel, huh?)

    As for my characters, awkwardness isn’t unusual for them. Looking good isn’t unusual, but generally they have insecurities that run deeper than the physical.

    Like

  12. Melissa says:

    This was great, Jeff! Although I work hard to make my female characters as different from me as possible, I think a tiny bit seeps in anyway. Sure wish I could be as strong and courageous as they are though. LOL Love these questions!

    Like

    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks, Melissa.
      Some of my male characters have qualities I have (or wish I had).
      But I’ve actually ‘given’ some of my interests to my female protagonists. For example: one of my heroines drives a Jeep Wrangler which I WISH I had. Another of my heroines has a Cooper A-2 leather flight jacket that I wish I had.
      By the time I finish equipping my various heroines with all the things I wish I had … there won’t be much left for me to wish for. Ha.
      Glad you visited today.

      Like

  13. crbwrites says:

    Okay, I’ll admit that when I saw my class reunion group photo, I thought, “Hey, we all turned out better than your average “People of Wal-Mart”! Of course, we were also in formalwear–as opposed to BVDs worn as tank tops. Thanks for the craft thoughts!

    Like

  14. jeff7salter says:

    LOL, Chris … you’ve tossed in a topic which has puzzled me from the moment I first glimpsed some of the photos — those ‘people of Wally World’.
    My big question: are they largely unaware that they dress and appear so outrageous (to the rest of us)?
    OR
    do they consciously put on their most garish outfits with the intention of making some deliberate ‘statement’ about fashion?
    OR
    some other bizarre rationalization?
    Inquiring minds want to know.

    Like

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