Hello fellow bloggers!
I have an idea for a new twitter project – #140charactersketch.
I plan to begin writing character sketches in 140 characters or less and posting them to twitter (perhaps weekly or so).
The primary aim is to practice succinct and creative character description, avoiding over-description, mundane details etc.
This idea came to me as I was pondering what to post on my twitter account and I remembered something I’d read in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. King writes:
I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like – I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you?… Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.*
Over-description can distance the reader. Reading is an active experience: you read the words and create the images and meaning yourself. Ever see a film adaptation of a book you’ve read and think of a character “That’s not how I pictured them…”? You pictured them. That’s why you felt an affinity for them, it was you who created them. The magic of reading happens inside your head and, as a writer, if you try to impose your image into a reader’s mind then that magic will be lost, they’ll resist, and it’ll make for clunky writing – over-description is dull.** We don’t want to be boring or overbearing.
The task is to be succinct and to produce a sense of recognition or understanding that is purely the reader’s. King’s #140charactersketch ‘Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe’ gives a complete sense of character. We, as readers, recognise this character, understand this character. We picture her: she is ours.
I hope to improve my character description by beginning and participating in this twitter project and I hope that some of you will participate too.
Check the #140charactersketch twitter feed and follow me at @samuelhbirnie.
I look forward to seeing some concisely and creatively constructed characters.
*Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) pp. 202-3.
**This is a generalisation, of course. Like everything ever, there are exceptions to the rule. Over-description may be used because it fits the narrative voice (e.g. a private eye who always reports events/characters and notes every minuscule detail) or perhaps reveals something about the character (e.g. a character who has just killed her abusive husband in self-defence might over-describe the pattern, colours, texture, history of the carpet beneath her husband’s corpse as a way of repressing the trauma or of making sense of the violence). There are no rules in writing. In fact, you (& I) should be as diverse in your techniques as possible to be able to achieve diverse and numerous effects.