Friday, November 23, 2007

It’s In the Details, Folks

You ever wonder about those authors who are just a tad bit obsessive? The ones who do these detailed character sketches before they ever start writing? Shoot, they'll even write a backstory for secondary or minor characters.

Crazy, aren't they? Yeah, crazy as a fox. Or, as we say around my family reunions, crazy as Aunt Tilly.

It's all in the details, folks.

You can know lots of general stuff about your protagonist: she's a police detective, a vampire, blonde, brown eyes, tall, pale, thin, adopted, smart, sarcastic, ... whatever. But all that is not what makes her memorable to your readers. They like her because she has a callous on her left heel from the lucky penny she keeps in her shoe. That small detail sets her apart from all the other vampire police detectives in books.

Your villain may be a serial killer, a loner, an expert with knives and guns, a martial arts master, with vacant eyes and a psychological wound from childhood that has warped him for life. Well, aren't they just about all like that? What detail makes him unique and memorable? Maybe he always holds his breath when driving past a cemetery. Perhaps he eats his meals one food at a time: never touching the peas until the corn has been finished, never eating the corn until the meat is gone.

Details are important not just for your main characters, but for the smaller story-people, as well. After all, they don't get much *page* time, so there has to be something about them that stands out. It's not fun for the reader to have a character show up that seems to come out of thin air, only to realize that they've seen that person twice before; they just didn't remember her. Or a character walks on scene and the reader thinks, Hmm, I remember the name, but who in the squat is he? And they end up thumbing back through the book, trying to find ol' Johnny.

Readers are attracted to the details about a character. And if you're already thinking about selling movie rights, keep in mind that actors are drawn to the details. You ever hear an actor say that he took a role because he felt it was a character he could sink his teeth in? They're not pulled to play the people that you have to thumb through the book just to identify.

Where do you come up with details to give your characters?

Look in your own life: you, your family, friends, colleagues, associates, the people you see on your way to work or the store, the toe-scratching guy sitting next to you on the plane, the hair-twirler in the car ahead of you at the stoplight. You live in a world of real people, and real people have quirks, idiosyncrasies, unusual features -- details.

Combine details into one character. Maybe your own Aunt Tilly has a sweet, delicate tinkling laugh. Very different from the guy at work who guffaws long and hard, then segues into a snort. Voila. Your character, Esmeralda, has a high-pitched giggle that ends in a deep-throated snort.

Extrapolate. You see a man limping through mall. Why is he walking that way? Does he have a lucky penny in his shoe? Is his hobby walking on burning coals? Is he perpetually late and in his rush to get out of the house, he picked up one of his shoes and one of his son's? Does he have six toes on that foot, or maybe only two?

Make it up. You're fiction writers, right? I've never actually known anyone who kept a penny inside their shoe. But I can imagine that person. I can come up with reasons why she would treasure that penny, why she would always keep it in her left shoe. I can see her massaging her foot at night, debating whether to chunk the coin. I can feel her panic when the penny goes missing.

So, when you're fleshing out your characters, major and minor, don't forget the details. Make them memorable. Like Aunt Tilly's tarantula tattoo she has on her cheek. I didn't even know she had a tattoo, until she appeared at the last reunion wearing a thong. Well, we thought it was a thong until we realized she just had her swim suit on backwards. Dang, I'll never forget that tarantula. Lord knows I've tried.


  1. Great post, details make an ordinary story shine.

  2. I totally agree! They can make even minor characters memorable and can make the protagonist stand out.


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