Being a Better Writer: Detailing Characters

Whoa. Did I wake up late today. Noon, in fact. Wow.

But you know what? I feel excellent! Last night marks, I think, the first full night of sleep I’ve gotten in since … crud … Since I returned from my quick Alaska trip. And even there I was playing catch up. I think that today I might almost be caught up.

So … today’s post is a little late. Sorry. But I really don’t feel bad. I feel really good. Crud, I might even go get some exercise today!

Also, really quick before we get to today’s topic, don’t forget the 24-hour sale hitting on April 19th! Even if you already own a few books, it’s a chance to either complete your collection or share your favorites with someone else!

Okay, all that out of the way? Let’s get down to business with today’s topic of choice: Detailing characters.

Hopefully, that title has done its job properly and drawn most of you in. Made you think. Many, I expect, upon seeing the term “detail” and “character” in the same context would assume that the topic of choice would be about how to create or write detailed characters. Which, to be  fair, is a very good topic. Hence why I’ve made a number of posts on it already. And yes, this topic does sort of align with that. It’s definitely going to get the tag.

But … I didn’t say “detailed characters.” I said detailing, which is just a little bit different. Detailing is something a bit more specific.

It can also be a verb, describing an action instead of being a thing. So, for example, I can talk about detailing as a concept … but I can also say “Oh, I was detailing X” and the statement still works.

Right, right, enough background. So what is detailing, and what does it have to do with your characters? Simple. Detailing is the act of adding small, decorative features to a building, sculpture, painting, or other piece of art. Hence the name. You’re adding small “details” to an item in order to enhance the whole. Like molding along the edge of a room, or a slight upwards crease to the lines around a sculpture’s eyes. Small, tiny details that enhance the whole when pulled back.

Most of you can probably see where I’m going with this now. Maybe. You’re thinking about the small details of your characters, right? How to add them in to enhance what the reader already knows?

Well, that’s good. In fact, I think I wrote another post that touched on that at one point. Maybe more than one. Which is good, because I’m not repeating that today. No, I’m not going to be talking about your primary characters at all.

No, today I’m stepping in another direction with our detailing. I’m talking about secondary and tertiary characters. And just like that, the whole situation has changed.

See, secondary characters are, for many, an interesting challenge. It’s easy to describe a primary character (well, once you get around the hurdle of unlearning dropping all the details about them up front). They’re a primary character, after all. You’ve got all the time and pages in the world to describe them. Okay, not really, but you’ve got plenty of time, let’s put it that way. A 300-page book can easily find the space over the course of its pages to let a reader know what their main cast looks like in action.

But secondary characters, now … that’s a different trick. Now, just to be clear here, secondary characters are those characters that appear in the story, but don’t carry the main narrative. They can be a protagonist’s boss, for example, or a friend of a protagonist who shows up from time to time,  but isn’t in-scene enough to be a main character. Tertiary characters take that even further. Where a secondary character may make recurring appearances, or an appearance that’s long enough for them to almost be a main character for a chapter or so, a tertiary character is simply a character that is there for a scene, to help set or establish things. Like someone behind a desk, for example.

Granted, these lines blur, and you’ll easily find people online who will argue what one character or another is to the death simply for the sake of contrarian arguing (after all, this is the internet). So the lines blur a little. So let me pull out an example to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. Let’s go with Dead Silver, one of my own works.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Dead Silver was my second book, an Urban Fantasy which starred the shaman Hawke Decroux as he traveled out to a sleepy New Mexico town in search of chupacabras and instead encountered a whole lot of missing persons, including his friend Jacob Rocke. Good, fun, mysterious, creepy shenanigans ensue. Also talking goats.

Anyway, the main characters of Dead Silver are easy enough to pin down. We have Hawke Decroux, the obvious protagonist, through whose eyes we see the world, and we have his friend Jacob. These two form the core of the protagonist set.

But what about secondary and tertiary characters? Well, a good example of a secondary character would be the curator of the museum,Charlie Andrews. While he’s a character that appears a few times (usually when Hawke swings by the local museum to check up on local lore, he’s definitely not a major character. He’s a curator who the main cast interacts with from time to time. I think he appears in … three or four scenes, maybe? It’s been a while since I read the book. Anyway, we get a little bit of background, a little bit of exposition, and a few details, but he’s not hanging around all the time. He’s secondary to the cast, and they still hold prominence in the scenes Charlie appears in.

What about a tertiary character? A good example of tertiary characters would be the desk clerks at the motel Hawke stays at. One makes a singular appearance (IIRC) in the opening chapters, the other makes a few more appearances, but each time only in a few paragraphs before going back to her job.

Again, the lines between these can blur, and I’ve seen some authors refuse to differentiate between anything other than primary and secondary characters at all. But, with this established for the purposes of the topic, let’s get back to that, shall we?

So we have these secondary and tertiary characters, characters that aren’t going to play as large a part in the story as our primary characters. But we want them to feel like characters, of course. We don’t want them being blank, faceless mannequins that come into a scene, deliver information, and then waltz out again. Even if we name the mannequin, it’s still a hollow stand-in. But at the same time, we don’t have the time to flesh them out as we do regular characters. With our main cast, details and description have all the time in the world. With side characters … we don’t have that. We have limited time. And, of course, we don’t want to commit the sin of stopping everything and dropping paragraph after paragraph of exposition about their looks on the reader, either.

This, then, is where detailing comes in. We don’t have page after page of time with this character to dribble out all the little details about them. So, instead, we detail. We pick a few small bits about that character that have the capacity to really paint a picture for the reader, and we give them those instead.

If this sounds tricky, well, like most things in writing, yes, it is. We have to be able to visualize and understand that character well enough that we can see exactly what makes them remarkable, what detail it is that can, almost by association, paint the rest of the character’s picture for us, all on its own.

So, take the earlier example of a secondary character with Charlie Andrews. When he’s introduced, we’re given two details about him. First that his hair is grayed and balding. This, in turn gives the reader a sense of the man’s age, which shapes how they envision his face and his actions. Second, that he’s wearing a sweater vest (old, IIRC) that is just a little bit too tight around the middle.

Those are the two details the reader is given. And yet, how many, upon reading that description, have already started to build a picture of what this guy looks like in your head. Does it solidify even further when I mention that his first appearance is the police basically just nodding and going “Yeah, yeah, Charlie, we know, but it’s just not a big deal?”

And that’s all the reader really needs. Oh, there are a few more small details given out here and there, but think about the context of those details given out. The first, with Charlie’s hair, tells you what his rough age is … but that in turn helps paint the mental picture further. After all, not a lot of young people have gray, balding hair. The second detail, however, gives the reader more to build on. First, most of us have seen a sweater vest, and we know what they look like. But add that to the age detail already given, and it helps expound the picture. Add in that last little bit about how it’s a bit too tight around the middle, and we’re given even more to go off of an build off of. The vest is tight because the one wearing it has gained weight since they purchased it. Which tells us a bit about the man’s physique and shape.

See how this works? I’m not telling you this to toot my own horn, but to show how picking just a few small details to focus on can allow the reader’s mind to expand and extrapolate and fill in the blanks on their own. And that’s what detailing is: it’s picking out a few small details that will enhance the whole, guide the reader’s mind in the right direction. And when we have very limited space with which to spend on describing a character, picking just the right important details can make all the difference between our reader envisioning what we hope, and envisioning something completely different.

Okay, I think you get it. Well, save one small note here: Not every character needs this treatment. There are tertiary characters that are barely characters, but more mooks, after all. No one really needs to know the details of a guard’s life unless that life is going to be relevant.

Anyway, moving on then. So you want small detailing that can draw the reader’s mind to paint a picture. Good. Now comes the real hard part. How? After all, you can’t just sit down, picture a character, and say “Details! Appear!” So, how do you go from thinking “Hey, I want to do some detailing” to knowing what to detail?

Well, that’s the tricky part, and involves a little self-examination. The way I do it is I picture this side character in my mind, and I think “What makes this character stand out? What detail about them sets them apart from everyone around them? Is it what my POV character would notice (don’t forget this step)?” Then I sit and consider what my mind comes up with. Does it “sell” the character? Does it give my reader something to springboard off of? Or is it just a quick note?

Depending on how vital it is that the reader picture the character, that last one may or may not be more or less important. Your mileage may vary with how specific you want this picture to be painted (though, if they will be a recurring secondary or tertiary character, it can help paint a picture for the reader to build off of).

But, to help set that “image,” try to distill it. What are the core components of the character you want to get across? What comes to mind as the action, appearance, or style of speaking that says the most about them?

And this can be any number of things. A lot will come down to what you want to present and how. One tertiary character in Dead Silver is introduced as a high schooler watching animated shows on a laptop, who pauses his show and closes the lid before giving his full attention to Hawke. It’s small, but it’s a realistic interaction that also shows the kid’s focus.

Right. I’m sitting her thinking it over and running things over in my head, and I really don’t think there’s any more I can add. So, in summary, when we introduce secondary or tertiary characters, we need to pay special attention to the small things about their character, the specific things that we mention, as we won’t have much space to say more than a few things, and we want those few things to paint as clear a picture as possible. So we need to consider how our characters will view this character, how our reader is going to view this character, and then distill them down to a few, descriptive bits that say as much about them as possible. Details that invite our reader to let their own thoughts go down avenues that will fill in new blanks.

Find the small details. The little things that define a character, that can fix them in a reader’s mind. Use those to give your secondary and tertiary characters  an image, a shape, that the reader can build upon quickly.

I’d say there’s more, but there really isn’t. It’s down to practice. It’ll take some, but it’ll be worth it.

So good luck, and get writing.

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