by Meg West, author of Love on Longboat Key
Most authors enjoy writing about place. I should know–I’m one of them. I love pointing the lens of my author’s camera and describing the scenery. Trees, lakes, ocean, sky? Living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens? I’m there. I’m fine with it.
I struggle, however, with how to describe my characters. Even though I’m a realistic writer and know that real people look in the mirror a dozen times a day, as an author I don’t want to resort too often to that clichéd way of offering physical description (“She gazed into the mirror and. . . . “).
Here are a few tips I can offer based upon my experience writing my first novel, Love on Longboat Key:
- Readers want to know what your hero or heroine looks like right away–so slip in the physical description of the character as soon as he or she comes on the scene.
- When we write descriptions of scenery or interiors, we usually let the camera pan from left to right or top to bottom. Why not do the same for your characters? Think about your fiction as a film–how would the camera first present the hero or heroine? Would we see him from the side or behind or a front angle? What might the camera zoom in on first–her hair, his shoes?
- Yoke the physical description of your hero or heroine to your description of the place. For instance, in the opening of Love on Longboat Key, I wanted to stress how my main character, Julie, reacted to sitting in the Florida sunshine when she comes down to visit her ageing parents on holiday break:
Only six days remained until Christmas and most people were finishing their last minute shopping at the mall. But Julie Joseph sat on a worn wooden bench at the Selby Botanical Gardens, watching sailboats glide by on the still water of Sarasota Bay. . .
I then described how Julie reveled in the warm weather by describing the difference between her Connecticut clothing and her Florida clothing:
Julie stretched out her long, pale legs and flexed her even paler bare toes. She could hardly believe her good luck. Just yesterday she’d been bundled in a down coat and fur-lined boots, yet now she wore white cargo pants, a thin cotton T-shirt, and red rubber flip-flops. Basking in the warmth of the Florida sun took some of the sting off spending the holidays with her quarrelsome mother and father.
- Remember that sometimes we hear a character before we see a character. And remember that both in real life and in fiction, we can make assumptions about a character based on his or her voice. For instance, here is how Julie first views her love interest, Thomas Briggs IV, in Love on Longboat Key:
A louder-than-necessary male voice interrupted the silence. Julie turned and glared at the tall, sandy-haired guy crunching down the shell-lined path. He was so busy half-shouting on his cell phone he didn’t even give her a glance as he walked to the edge of the railing that hemmed the water.
For all Julie knew, he was yet another self-absorbed thirty-something guy, the kind she often saw in the hallways at work, who gathered his sense of self-importance from how tightly he was tethered to his iPhone. He sure was dressed the part of an insurance executive on casual Friday, in a crisp blue Oxford shirt, khaki pants, and leather deck shoes. He only lacked the socks. And he was taller than normal. In the halls of Pilgrim Mutual, his head would have grazed the tiles of the low ceiling.
The most important thing to remember when describing your characters is: have fun with it! Descriptions should never be belabored. If you enjoy being behind the camera and transferring what you see to the page, readers will pick up on that enthusiasm and enjoy your fiction all the more.
* * *
Meg West is author of a trilogy of romantic comedies set on the barrier islands off Sarasota, Florida: Love on Longboat Key (Champagne Books, 2017) and the forthcoming novels Love on Lido Key (2018) and Love on the Links (2019). Visit her website www.megwestnovelist.com and follow her on Twitter @megwestnovelist.