On Tuesday, we looked at physical character description. But there is a much more important aspect to character development…our weird, quirky brains and the weird, quirky things they make us do. Now, I admit, I am biased. My fiction is very character-based, and I think depth of character is more important than almost anything. That’s me. You may disagree. That is your right. I must warn you, however, that disagreeing with me will only start you down the path toward a lifetime bereft of joy and full of despair. Because I will find you. Trust me on that.
Now, when you are making a character, you want them to seem real. You also want them to stand out from the other characters. I’ve read a lot of books where the author feels it necessary to outline every single stupid thing a character thinks. Or maybe the author goes too far into trying to tell you what kind of person the character is. But it doesn’t have to be hard. In fact it is quite easy.
When we talked about physical description, my argument was that the things that make us different and unique will stick in a reader’s mind much more readily than superficial things. A tattoo of a spider on the side of your character’s face is going to make him or her much more ‘real’ to me than if you tell me he or she has long hair. Seriously, stop with the hair descriptions. Same goes here, and we do it all the time.
Say you are describing one of your friends to someone. You want them to get a sense of what this person is like. You don’t have time to tell them a life story and they don’t want to hear it. So you say, “Kevin? Ah, he’s a sweet guy. Mellow. Unless you mention religion and then he will go off on a tangent for hours.” In that little sentence we learned a lot about Kevin. We may take different things from it, but it’s a good character marker and it speaks volumes.
You can say your character is nice, mean, depressed, jealous, blah, blah, blah. My mind just kind of blithely acknowledges these things. They aren’t interesting. Lots of people are nice or jealous. Quirks. We want quirks. I have OCD. I do all kinds of weird stuff. But everyone has something that is very telling. Maybe your character has some weird fetish. Maybe your character doesn’t like to be touched. Maybe your character only shaves on even numbered days. Maybe your character eats the same thing for lunch every day. Maybe your character refuses to have clocks in the house. Maybe your character likes to follow people without their knowing it. Maybe your character eats cereal with a fork.
Don’t explain the quirk (necessarily). The reader will infer certain things about the character based on how you present them. This is why no one ever reads the same book. Reading/writing is a partnership. The reader has to write part of the story based upon their experiences and perceptions. You may not like that as a control freak writer type, but it’s the damn truth. You write that Sally had an abortion when she was sixteen and no two readers are going to have the same reaction to that. But that’s part of the writer/reader deal. My novel, Joe Café, involves a character named Chet who is a Vietnam vet (and it affected him). You bet your ass people see Chet differently depending on whether they are pacifists, fought in the war, lost a loved one, etc.
So, give your characters some interesting mental hiccups. And let the chips fall where they may. This is more important than physical description. You don’t know me. I gave a description of myself on Tuesday. White. Balding. 6’2”. Tattoos. None of those things tell you much about me (the tattoos, sort of, cause that’s still a little bit unique and gives you some insight into who I am). But what if I were to tell you that I wash my hands so often the skin dries and cracks and sometimes bleeds? What if I were to tell you that I refuse to discuss anything serious at bed time or I can’t sleep? (And I do, ask my wife.) What if I told you that I get songs stuck in my head for weeks sometimes. That I check everything twice before I leave the house. That I can’t leave the house until I tell my cat I love him and to hold down the fort or I will spend the whole time I am away crawling out of my skin. I throw salt over my shoulder when I spill some, but I don’t believe in superstition. I shower the exact same way, every time I shower. Same things, same numbers, same order. I think about killing myself all the time, but don’t want to and never would. It’s just something I like to think about…it calms me. Did those things give you a better insight into who I am than my height?
People are weird and they do weird things. Capitalize on this in your writing. Make your character seem real, distinct, and give the reader a way to get inside their heads. And start paying attention. A lot of people mention that I write very “real” characters (yes, I’m awesome…in fact this whole post was a ruse to pat myself on the back). You want to know why? Because people fascinate me. I read psych books for fun. You’re all weird. And I am watching your weird asses 24/7. And taking mental notes. Believe it.
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JD Mader is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novels JOE CAFÉ and THE BIKER – and co-author of the mighty Bad Book. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his blog:www.jdmader.com (and musical nonsense here: JD Mader).
35 thoughts on “Character Description – Psychological”
This is a great post. It's so easy to look at other people's quirks and write about characters with quirks, but it can be hard to recognize our own eccentricities. When we do, it's a whole new bucket of realization. I think that's what separates mediocre writers from good writers: that willingness to reach your hand into the darkness. Nicely written, JD.
Thanks Jesse. To me, character is everything. I will read a less than stellar book with great characters. If the characters are weak, the writer has lost me.
When people use that hoary old cliché "show don't tell", this post ought to appear as if by magic. It's the sensible, nuanced and practical version. Well-articulated, my friend.
Thanks man. I pride myself on being sensible, nuanced and practical.
LOL, don't forget articulate? 😉
And certifiably loopy – but loveable
I edit and mentor a LOT of writers, and boy howdy, when it comes to character? This post is awesome. I couldn't have said it better myself.
Far too many authors spend WAY too much time on characterization–or the external life of the character–what they wear, how they dress, what kind of car they drive.
Writing character requires a writing those things that reveal the inner life….
Feel free to pass it along. And if your company name refers to The Kinks, bravo. Wish I'd thought of it. 😉
And I thought I was the only one who read psych books/magazines for fun. Great post, JD. I'm still having a hard time understanding when a character seems 'real'. I know what it's like to read them (Lord knows I have read plenty of books where the characters jump out and I'm pretty sure that they are, indeed real people) I just don't know how to translate that into my writing. Or, if I have, I don't recognize it.
Thanks R.J. It will happen. It took me years to where I felt like my characters were 3D and sound. And part of that involved going against the above advice at times. But this is a good place to start. 😉
Practice. Practice makes you better at anything.
What are these books and magazines you read?
My editor told me to rewrite my first book attempt in first person, and told me the character is fascinating and readers are rooting for her all along, but I need to give more insights into her motivations and what makes her tick.
I don't want to appear too pop-psych guru-ish.
Read Psychology Today. It's a great magazine written for psychologists, by psychologists, for the weird people that read the magazine and psychology students.
I have a mild obsession with the inner workings of Hitler's mind as well. I know, I'm ridiculously weird. I've picked up every psychological dissertation, book, and article I can find on him and given it a read. Not to mention watching documentaries on Josef Mengele and others.
I have a plan of breaking into the FBI and getting my hands the first forensic psychological report on Hitler. I just have to figure out how to avoid the cops.
Oh, and I have a mild (11 year old) obsession with the Salem Witch Trials. Every book. Every documentary…etc.
I also own a copy of the DSM IV.
It's all really good reading if you're looking for the mechanics, signs and symptoms of any psychological disorder.
I'm going to go back to the couple of chapters I wrote for my second book and rethink the character development. Thanks, good stuff Mader.
My pleasure. Thanks for spelling my name right. 😉
I'm getting better- the meds help
Awesome. I love the weird, freaky things people do, and try to get them into my writing as it fits. (Note to self: Must stop talking about hair. Unless it's hanging, braided, from my protagonist's armpits.)
LOL, thanks Laurie.
Excellent post. I'll pay more attention and give my characters more emotional quirks as well as the physical ones I have used. Thanks for the suggestions. I love quirky characters in the books I read, I should write about them, too.
Surely. Thank you, Marianne.
I've loved both of these character posts. The first makes me not stress so much about the fact that I sometimes forget to physically describe characters *grin* This post though, was fabulous! I love sitting back and reflecting on my characters, 'cause I always want the next part of the story to be better than the ones that came before. Thanks so much for giving me more (and awesome) guidance.
You're entirely welcome, Melissa. I'm glad it hit home. Feel free to pass it on. We do this for the community.
Loved the post. I've been trying to do this more myself. Not sure if your second to last paragraph was all true, but coincidentally I do many of those things you listed.
I'm a fiction writer. Nothing I say is true. 😉 There's a blog on that coming up on Tuesday.
Tell me the names of your favorite psych books.
I've got a ton. I picked them up at used bookstores. They're all in boxes right now.
As in books on the subject of psychology?
Name a couple, JD. Top 3 favorites.
Same as the last post, I became fixated on one thing you noted. I tried to describe my two of my closest friends in the distinct way you have noted. Unfortunately, am apparently a failure at describing the idiosyncrasies of the people I love. I'm going to work on that!
Another insightful post JD. I am really taken in by the way you share this information. Once a teacher, always a teacher. ;))
Once a teacher…yeah, I think you're right. I don't know whether that's good or not. Thanks Jo.
It is a very good thing JD when you are a good teacher: challenging, discovering, encouraging, making information accessible, empathizing, accepting. A very good thing indeed.
Thanks Jo. 🙂
Right on, JD. But since I agree with you I guess you won't come and find me. Worst luck. 🙂
That was brilliant. *Goes back to talking to tattoo*
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