What it’s good for: visualising characters
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He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway – Guy de Maupassant
You can see him, can’t you? In less than fifteen words, Maupassant has given you everything you need to say, oh right, that sort of person! The novelist Ford Madox Ford called this ‘getting a character in’ (and see James Wood’s excellent How Fiction Works for a broader discussion on this theme).
We all kid ourselves we’re completely unique, individual – that God broke the mould after he made us, etc. But (sorry to pop your bubble) you’re not all that unique. And neither am I. Watch enough episodes of Come Dine with Me and you’ll start to realise a peculiar truth about the human race: we’re not all that different to cats, and dogs, and any other animal that comes in a limited variety of colours and sizes. There is a limit to our variety. Some of us might be tabby, and some might be tortoiseshell. Some might be Manx cats with no tails, and some are those weird in-bred ones that can’t control their own mucus (I’m still talking about cats here, k?).
Who are you visualising in each of the following cases?
grey hair long enough to sit on
Louise Brooks twenties-style bob
Teddy boy quiff
Short back and sides
We’re all so adept at this short-hand stuff that I bet you were visualising pretty much the same people I had in mind.
I’ve got this theory, you see. And the theory is this: find your character’s hairstyle and all else will follow.
Then you ask yourself:
Young or old?
Big or small?
When s(he) enters a room, do people notice?
Blonde ringlets. Early teens. Puppy fat. They have to notice, because it’s her party…
Ten seconds’ work and, already, I know her well enough to make a start.
If you’re struggling to visualise a character – or trying to create a new one – answering these questions will give you (and your reader) a foothold to work from.