I imagine most of you, being fans of fantasy, have already gobbled up the 14 minute Game of Thrones trailer that was released into the interwilds a few days ago. (If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch. It’s worth the time. I’ll wait.) It appears to be the first 14 minutes of the show itself, and features Sean Bean playing Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. As a fan of George R R Martin’s epic saga myself, I have to admit being mightily pleased with many of the casting choices. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo…someone in casting clearly either read the books or paid attention when someone talked about the characters.
As pleased as I am about these actors, I’m utterly disappointed about the choice to play Roland Deschain in the upcoming films of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Despite King having said in interviews many times that he modeled Roland off of a young Clint Eastwood, and despite there being a number of actors with the appropriate body type and look to choose from, instead they have decided to cast Javier Bardem, who looks and sounds nothing like Clint Eastwood. He might be a talented actor, but he’s not Roland, and I’m going to go into this movie with a chip on my shoulder.
What does any of this have to do with writing?
When we create characters, we know what they look like. We do our best to describe them to the reader. He’s blond and average height, with a sardonic twist to his lip that never quite fades away. She wears her dark hair in multiple braids, and prefers red silk shirts over white linen. We do our best to convey an image to the reader, so the reader can see what we see. It’s not easy, though. Just think about all those eyewitness accounts that turn out to be so far off base as to be no help at all. The grocer saw a black man in a green van, wearing sneakers and jeans. The taxi driver insists it was a Vietnamese teenager in baggy pants in a VW Beetle, and the mother walking her baby swears it wasn’t a man at all but a white woman driving a red Mini Cooper. They were all there, but what they saw differs with each person’s perception. Readers do the same thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading along in some thrilling book with the author suddenly mentions the character’s auburn hair, and I come screeching to a halt. Auburn? But in my head she’s been a brunette all this time – what do you mean she’s a redhead? That can’t be right!
I won’t say that it’s entirely the writer’s fault. The reader’s going to imagine what she’s going to imagine, and no one can get inside her head while she’s there. That’s why it’s so important that I make my character as clearly defined as I can. That also doesn’t mean I should info-dump every detail of my character’s looks on the first page, and hope the reader remembers. Info-dump? That’s when the writer spends a paragraph or a page loading details that do nothing to push the story along. “He was middle-aged, wearing a gray three piece suit and scuffed shoes, and he carried a briefcase as scuffed as his shoes. He hadn’t shaved in a while, and his watery brown eyes squinted under beetley brows. His skin was pocked with acne scars and his nails were ragged. He sighed, his breath unpleasant to be so close to, and there were hairs sticking out of his ears.”
See? This didn’t really tell me anything other than what he looks like. It’s a list, not narrative. Instead of telling me his shoes are scuffed, tell me his shoes looked like he’d bought them at Goodwill. Instead of saying his skin is pocked, mention that he should have washed more often during his teenage years. And don’t tell it all at once, but in stages. It’s better to tell me a little at a time, and then throw in reminders along the way. You can tell me what color her eyes are, how tall she is and how many buttons are buttoned on her shirt at the beginning, but if you mention those buttons again later on, I’ll be more likely to remember. The picture in my mind will solidify. As a writer, if I’m doing my job properly, you should be able to recognize my characters on a city street.
We’ve been talking about measures of success in writing for the last few posts, and I have to feel this is one of them. When you, the writer, can manage to convey your character so clearly that I, the reader, know exactly what he looks like as well as how he’ll behave, you’ve succeeded. Telling a compelling story is important, but so is creating a character who’s immediately recognizable inside and out.