on writing, memes, and character description

Back in the early days of what we now call our codependent internet relationship, Basia and I spent a… slightly ridiculous amount of time on Tumblr. (Actually, it was probably a very ridiculous amount of time, but… anyway.)

Tumblr is many things to many people, but one thing it’s always good for is ask memes. What do these memes have to do with writing, you ask?  Easy: they make excellent writing exercises.

Picture

The meme pictured above, for example, is one of my favorite writing exercises. It’s the perfect opportunity to practice character description. If your friends were your story’s characters, how would you describe them?
Take the following one about Basia. I’ve known her for about five years now, and we’ve been good friends for at least three of those. In that time, she’s reblogged this meme at least twice, which means I’ve sent her these summaries/”author descriptions” at least twice as well. Because we know each other well, writing these is always quite fun and, compared to writing for people I don’t know quite as well, fairly straightforward:
Something about her spoke of wolfishness–her grin, perhaps, or the set of her shoulders. Whatever it was, I was not surprised to see her turn an almost predatory glare on any stranger who deigned to ask whether she, an English major, wanted to teach. What did surprise me was the subtlety of her kindness: a self-deprecating joke, a sincere encouragement, a friendly word of advice when pressed. She built with this, using her creativity to string together words that made the world a bit brighter.
In my own writing, I’ve always found that the story flows more easily if I understand my characters implicitly. If I want them to be believable and relatable, I need to be as sure in my descriptions of them as I am in describing Basia.
At first glance she might look like any other underemployed artist. Paintbrushes with colorfully splattered handles stuck out of her bun, her dungarees always had colored pencils and tubes of paint falling out of the pockets. Her smile was quiet but infectious, and her wit as dry as the desert sand. She looked like she belonged on the cliffs by the sea, with an easel at hand and laugh on her lips–or maybe in a window-laden penthouse in the middle of a bustling city, sunshine streaking her brown hair gold as she drafts letters to friends scattered with stars.
Most narratives don’t require this concentration of description–too much all at once, and your writing can get unbearably flowery or ostentatious. It works well for the meme, but not for a story. I try to be more succinct and efficient when I’m describing characters. Take the introduction I gave to the protagonist of a short story I wrote:
Hugo was a worrier.

Being a ghost hadn’t helped matters.

In two lines, I’ve given you my main character and his two defining characteristics: one, that he worries; two, that he’s a ghost.

Ah, you say. If this is just an exercise in excessiveness, then why bother at all?

Simple: this meme shapes your observational skills.

Creativity is a weird monster that often requires the absurd or over the top to be acknowledged before you can sink into what you actually want to write. Practicing showy descriptions gives your brain room to do this. It gives you a space to practice writing out your observations. You’re not going to use the first draft of whatever you come up with. This is a starting point, a sketch of what’s to come. Besides, not every character can be introduced in two lines:

One of the trees gave a giant lurch as something small and dark dropped from its branches to the grass below. The dark blob slowly unfurled and Hugo’s eyebrows shot up as he realized that the small and dark something was a girl.

The girl moved calmly down the brick path. Her long dark hair hung loose and tangled down her back, and the rest of her appearance was equally tousled: grass stains on her knees, a bright red scab on her left elbow, a smudge of dirt on her forehead and under her fingernails. As she walked down the path, she dropped wildflowers on graves and curtseyed grandly to the older tombstones. Her feet were bare and calloused, and she wore overalls, not a skirt, but her smile was bright and her air gracious as she continued through the graveyard.

Gwen’s introduction takes much more time and allows for more of the flowery language I always reach with the meme exercise, but balances observation with action. From the two paragraphs above, you learn that Gwen is small, active, and unconcerned with tidiness–but also that she is kind and cheerful and curiously at home among ghosts and graveyards.

So next time you’re stuck trying to describe a character, try going overboard. Start with the showy phrases and heartfelt-but-somewhat-too-cheesy sentences and see what happens. You might end up with something ridiculous, but you might end up with an idea of just what your character needs.

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