In her blog post, “Revealing Character Through Details,” Julie Eshbaugh quotes Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969,) who famously said, “God is in the details.”
A German-born, American architect, van der Rohe did not mean the more details the better. He meant it’s the small, subtle details that can give a building (and per Eshbaugh a book) the power to transcend the common.
In other words, look for telling-details that will relay worlds of information about your character to the reader. My character may have red hair, green cat eyes, freckles and a stand-out bosom but what makes her unique and memorable isn’t her outer description it’s the fact that she used to be a kleptomaniac and her eye is still drawn to bright, shiny objects, even when she’s having a serious conversation with somebody. Her eyes are greedy.
Reader Eshbaugh’s post for some fantastic examples and help in finding your character’s telling details.
You may also enjoy Carly’s related post, “Quirks make your characters feel real to readers.”
What telling details have you given your characters?
I don’t mean to sound morbid, but if you’re building characters for a short story or novel, I suggest you write their obituaries.
I’ve written a fair number of them over the years as a newspaper reporter, for members of my family, and to help friends who struggled with the words to honor a loved one who had passed away.
A good obituary is a tribute and a glimpse of a person’s life. As a journalist, I felt it was an honor to write obituaries even if I didn’t personally know the people I wrote about. Read more
The movie The Way written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen depicts the spiritual journey of a father who’s estranged son dies on the first day of his pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, an 800-mile trek from the Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the burial place of St. James.
The father, a widowed ophthalmologist living in California, flies overseas to collect his son’s body but ends up walking the road and becoming a pilgrim himself. The movie is a touching story of a father’s reconnection with this son and awakening to life. It has everything going for it (as long as you don’t mind not seeing something being blown up every two seconds): incredible scenery, the father’s emotional transformation into a person his son would be proud of, great dialogue, humor, sadness, perfect pacing, and micro-tension between characters that builds throughout the story.
The script is a great example of plot defined as characters in conflict. Each character is a study in human nature. How they interact over the course of the story is a study in how the microcosm of character reflects the macrocosm of the story world. As I work through my current project, I picture this cast of characters and think about how I can create more conflict for my characters.
The Way is beautifully written, superbly rendered, and highly recommended this holiday season!