Mark Terry

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Characterization, Part 2

February 17, 209
Yesterday Madame Brilliance mentioned a character's "tell."

Here's a story. Bestselling author Michael Connelly wrote once about how when he first did research for his police procedurals he spent some time with LAPD homicide detectives. He was sitting by the detective's desk and he  noticed the cop's reading glasses on the top of the desk. The glasses stems looked chewed on. Later, when they actually went to look at a victim, Connelly noted that when the detective was examining the body, he held his glasses in one hand and chewed on the stem of the glasses.

A "tell" is a bit of shorthand to a character's inner life.

It can be subtle or it can be a sledgehammer, but it's a good idea to have them. There's a tendency for writers to give us our character's inner lives, particularly in first-person narratives:

I was worried. What was going on with my sister? When we were five-years-old...

Might work. But better:

A sharp cramp made me wince. I pressed my hand against my stomach and reached for the bottle of Maalox I kept in my top drawer. My gaze rested on the photo of my sister and I when we were five years old...

In other words, show don't tell.

My series character Derek Stillwater has a couple tells and some of them are big and some of them are small. He has panic attacks prior to his missions--big. When he gets worried he has a tendency to clutch or finger one of the talismans he wears around his neck--a rabbit's foot, ju-ju beads given to him by a friend who died in Somalia, and a St. Sebastian's medal (the patron saint of plagues, who was, if I remember correctly, tied to a tree and shot full of arrows). There are others, more subtle, (and some perhaps less so), but the point is I don't have him pondering how worried he is every time he's stressed. Sometimes I do, but mostly there are "tells," characteristics he has that show his inner life.

Yesterday I mentioned about being specific.

A "tell" is a good example of both "show, don't tell," as well as being specific.

I want to mention a general method that readers and writers may have some ambivalence about, but which I often use. Call it a gimmick or a technique, but I like it. Sometimes, in a description, I look for the descriptive metaphor, something general, that gives a sense of the character. These could be:

She was as sharp and elegant as leaded crystal.

He was like a shark, he never stopped moving.

You get the idea, right? We can describe a character from their toes to their hairline and physical description is fine (although I'm convinced that it's mostly lost on the reader, who provides their own physical descriptions of characters based on subtler cues than a line-by-line description), but these are also shorthand to the "sense" of the character.

So what are your characters tells? Is there also a broader metaphor you can use to give the reader the sense of your characters at the same time?

Cheers,
Mark Terry

8 Comments:

Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Wow . . . I keep moving up in the world. :-)

All my characters have "tells." One of the more obvious ones was in Mafic Chic . . . my character was a chef, and she loved the kitchen . . . arriving early to make her sauces and so on. But when her cousin (they co-own the restaurant) would arrive with this scheme or that, she would wield the knife like a weapon, chopping more and more furiously the longer he talked.

As for description, I know that I gave the most rudimentary descriptions of Ava and Tom in The Roofer, but I was really careful to describe his eyes--that no one ever knew what was going on behind his . . . because he was so utterly lost, a drug addict and a loose cannon. Except that SHE always knew. It was meant to convey how this brother and sister pair were an enigma to everyone around them. If all the reader took away from his description was this haunted look of his, that was what I wanted them to get. An addict's gaze.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I would highly recommend character descriptions, particularly of main characters, stick to a few key elements. For instance, having read all of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, I know he's big and muscular and has a nose that's been broken a lot, but aside from that, after 30+ novels, I'm not sure I have any other physical description. But I know what he looks like (and it's not quite like Joe Mantegna or Robert Urich).

6:27 AM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

This is good advice, but I think also tricky advice. There's a point at which a "tell" passes into gimmick. I know this because I'm guilty of it ... I find myself walking a fine line between loading a character up with tells and presenting an emotionally authentic person -- and some of the best characters I've written are the leanest in terms of tells. Probably my best character really has just one tell: he hides behind his long hair when he's nervous.

As for physical descriptions, I totally agree that less is often better. Give your readers a few big ones and let them fill in the blanks.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Lurker,
I think so too, in terms of "tells." Although in the Derek Stillwater novels he's got these quirks and some of them aren't subtle, I try not to overdo it.

I'll get into that tomorrow, I think, with something like "quirks are not necessarily character traits."

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

One memorable "tag" is probably better than a laundry list of physical descriptions. I tend not to remember detailed, graphical accounts of character.

A problem I encounter though, in the show don't tell game is that mental states do not necessarily have physical manifestations, or at least not interesting ones or ones that are as variegated as the emotions that might be causing them. You can get a sensation of nausea from anything from a paisley patterned t-shirt to existential horror.

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