Thursday, April 30, 2015

Character Descriptions and Internet Dating

Being a writer is amazing for so many reasons; it's a justification for learning any new skill – but I might have a character who's a deep sea fisher – or for eavesdropping on strangers' conversations on the train – it's dialogue research. One of the unforeseen benefits for me was the symbiosis of writing and internet dating. The factors that make a good internet dating profile are also those that make a great character description, and visa versa. My second book on Amazon was actually a guide to writing online dating profiles for nice guys, using the tricks of a writer. And now I'm going to do the reverse and tell you about the academic research into "computer-mediated communication" and how to apply it to writing character descriptions.

Intentional and Unintentional Cues:
All human interactions are made up of what we intend to show the world, and then what we really do. As a Boarding House supervisor, looking after 15 year old girls, I'm an expert at reading the unintentional cues. 
"Are you doing your homework?" 
"Yes Miss Greentree."
In writing, that appears fine, right? But standing in front of the girl: the refusing to meet my gaze, the sudden lowering of the laptop screen so I can't see it, and then the nervous smile tell a different story. We can't help it, our bodies always betray us.

This is why internet dating freaks so many people out: they only have the person's word for it. So when we're online, we read into every unintentional cue: one misspelt word suddenly means they're uneducated and not very serious about their relationships as they haven't taken the time to proof-read their profile. The aim in a profile, therefore, is to create a consistent message with every piece of information given. The more consistent it is, the more honest it will be rated by other people. And honesty is very attractive.
So how can you use this in your writing? By remembering that a character description is not just the first half paragraph of physical attributes you give the audience. Everything will be analysed as part of the character, and if the dialogue or actions don't create a consistent message, the audience will feel cheated. So let's go through the five top ways to strengthen your character's personality.

Number One: The Physical Attributes
Online a picture is worth a thousand words. You can type until your fingers are numb that you're sporty, but if your picture shows a man with a beer gut, it's hard to believe. In writing we get to make up the physical attributes (which would be really useful in real life, just saying) but so many writers waste this opportunity by describing only the boring bits, or not giving the character a physicality inline with the rest of their personality. In my strict belief that no writer should waste words (waste not want not), don't give space on the page to physical attributes that add no personality, and make sure these physical attributes demonstrate the same personality.

Number Two:  Clothing and Method of Wearing Them
I know I'm harsh, but online any guy who has put up a shirtless photo is an immediate 'no', no matter how good his body is. There's truth to the adage that clothing maketh the man, and we should embrace that clothing also maketh the character. However, it's not just what we wear, but how we wear it that can drench a description in vitality. Take this delicious description by P.G. Wodehouse:

She looked like she'd been poured into the dress, and had forgotten to say 'when'.

Without being 'told' anything, we get a gorgeous sense of this character's personality. 
The great thing about clothing is that it changes every scene, and so is a constant update on how the character is developing. Have you taken time to analyse the wardrobe of your main characters and discussed with them why they chose that outfit on that day?

Number Three: Psychological Attributes and Mannerisms
Here is where writing has the advantage over internet dating (well, for the audience at least, as nervous men probably appreciate the limits computers have on this). A fast and effective way to give a character depth is to portray their inner workings through physical mannerisms. A repeated action always suggests something's going on beneath the surface, which is just what we want the audience to believe. The need to straighten every room they enter is a louder message than typing 'she had control issues'. 
I admit that I find this one rather fun, possibly because I have a submajor in psychology, so being able to create my own disorders is like a chemist getting to discover new compounds. So let yourself go wild. Think of the most affecting incident that happened in the character's past, and experiment with how that could manifest now. The only difficulty is to avoid caricatures, overused elements or those that produce a comic effect.

Number Four: Actions
Action is the Show Don't Tell of the real world. Someone can say they're an adrenaline junky, but until I see the evidence of them jumping out of a plane, I'm not sold. In a story, there are three levels of action we need to look out for. First, we start by making sure that plot-wise the character acts in line with their nature, no matter how much we want something else to happen. Then there's what the character does on a scene to scene basis: yes he must confront the bad guy and save the world here, but does he sneak into the secret base, or go in guns blazing? If you've told us he's a highly trained military expert, his actions need to reflect good strategic thinking, not just 'run at them with guns'. Finally, there's backing up the character by the choice of verbs to describe their actions. She walked across the room. Blah. She prowled across the room. Now I'm getting a picture. So go back to the scene where a main character is first introduced. What action can you give them that typifies their personality?

Number Five: Dialogue and Description
A profile is one long monologue, while in writing we get to break this into dialogue and point of view description (if writing in first or limited third). Most profiles (and bad writing) sound lifeless or awkward because there's no consistence between the message and the language. 'I am an active person. I like windsurfing.' Like? Like? What sort of active word is that?
Character is created as much by how something is said or described as by what. Vocabulary is the obvious first point. Anyone who's been around doctors knows they cannot resist being specific; it's not a broken arm, it's a 'fractured radius'. I was seriously put off a book when an average 12 year old described a boy's head as having 'Botticelli curls'. Grammar is another indicator, just think of the person who says 'yous'. Punctuation can also add personality, such as a person who always turns statements into questions. Then there's the length of their speech; the monosyllabic teenager, for example. And finally, think about their focus: imagine a main character who immediately notices all the possibly single men and how expensive their suits are. 
One great tip of dialogue is to take away everything except the actual speech, and see if you can tell who's talking. If not, you need to do some work. 

Another Type of Character Description:
And if you just want to be silly about it, you can do a Neil Gaiman from Neverwhere:

There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelery; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.

So in the end, as with internet dating, just go out there and have fun. 

Buffy Greentree


  1. What an original post Buffy. I love your sense of humour and you've given some great tips. I also love the way that writing gives me an excuse for eavesdropping :) All in the name of research! I also now have visions in my head of all those fabulous internet dating profiles from nice guys who've read your book. Well done. Now if you'll excuse me, I'd better check what my characters are wearing.

    1. How did they brush up? Trying a bit hard with the extra cologne, or did you discover a secret stash of expensive lingerie they buy when they're feeling lonely? It amazes me sometimes what my characters get up to when I'm not watching.

  2. Thanks for a great post Buffy. I must admit it isn't a comparison I have normally thought of but some great pointers there on how to make our characters consistent (honest), believable and interesting.

    1. I started looking at it the other way around, in that it annoyed me so much all the men (and probably women) who wrote in the 'self summary' section: I'm such a complex and diverse being, how could I ever be summarised in a few hundred words? To me, that's just lazy (and shows an amazing lack of introspection). Writers throughout history have created amazingly complex characters in just a few words, so why couldn't someone who already existed be written up?

  3. Really enjoyable reading, Buffy, with some great tips for making our characters more alive and interesting. Love your original way of thinking--and I don't think I'll forget that P G Wodehouse quote in a hurry!

    1. I admit that I got a bit side tracked reading more PG Wodehouse quotes after that. The man was a comic genius. Here are a few more just for fun:
      “He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.”
      “Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.”
      and finally:
      “It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.”