Deliberate Description & Quality Characterization

I’ve been reading a book that, on the surface and based on the back cover, should have been everything that I love in a book. It was historical fiction featuring one of my favorite time periods. I didn’t connect on the first page, but for me, that’s not uncommon. I usually have a rule to give a book 30-50 pages before making any judgments because of the eight million elements of life that could keep me from engaging.

But fifty pages in and I still wasn’t connecting. I set the book aside, took a step back from it, and tried to deduce what the problem could be. Thankfully, it came to me when I sat down to write this blog post. 
The efforts of description were going to the wrong thing. 
Because it is historical, there is a necessity to world build. I get that, have read the genre often, and will allow for details of clothes and castles and courtyards and courtiers. The problem, though, was I didn’t care why the details were being shared. The main character disliked her sister, was worried about the happenings in the government and, fifty pages in, that was the only connection I had with her. 
You see, the most luxurious setting in the world means absolutely nothing to a reader if they don’t connect with the characters in that setting.

There are people who will fill out full sheets on their characters, identifying favorite color and what kind of music they like to listen to. If these make your little writing heart happy, awesome, run with it. But those kinds of things don’t really let me know my characters better. Instead, I like to ask the following questions: 

1. What is my character’s greatest hope? 

This is going to vary widely depending on the age of the protagonist. I’ve heard it said that middle grade is about fitting in, young adult is about standing out, new adult is about becoming more self-aware and settled and women’s fiction is about the emotional journey of a character (it usually involves healing of some sort). Of course, if you are adding speculative elements, that adds another layer to what you need to consider, but the most essential question to ask of any character is what they hope for. 

2. What is my character’s greatest fear?

This may seem to be the direct opposite of their greatest hope, but that isn’t necessarily the case. For someone who wants to fit in, their fear could be that they will have to give up the essential elements of self. For someone who wants to fall in love, their fear could be that they will be betrayed, hurt, let down, etc. The age of the character and the number of past failures can certainly increase the intensity of not only the fear, but the character’s reaction to it. 

3. How will my character be different at the end of the book? 

Whether you are beholden to a hero’s journey, are playing with an emotional character arc, or are having your protagonist save the world, the reason that readers adore certain characters (and others not so much) is that we get to see them change. If a character goes through a whole book doing things and interacting with people and ends the same way they were before, it feels flat. This is particularly true with secondary characters: the best stories show character growth throughout the whole cast. 
Take a moment and think back to some of your favorite books. Chances are very high that you can easily identify the masterful way in which the author depicted characters hopes, fears and transitions. Now think about your own WIP; can you identify it as easily? Can your reader?

Have you taken the time to weave in backstory in a manner that enhances the story and characterization? Have you let the reader see the points of courage and moments of vulnerability? Am I so focused on describing the incredible dresses and food and the design of a house that I fail to mention why any of it matters to the character?

Taking a step back and clearly identifying these character developments will increase the reader’s connection with your writing, and, chances are very high, will increase your relationship with the characters as well. 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids living in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a 2016 board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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