From the misunderstood Lady Macbeth to the beloved Wilbur the pig, some literary characters stick with us long after the story ends. They are powerful, conniving, selfless, greedy and, most of all, far from ordinary. Like Paul Bunyan, these unforgettable characters tower over the rest and make even the most mundane moments seem larger-than-life.
So how can you turn your run-of-the-mill lumberjack into a literary giant?
1. Go Beyond Tall, Dark and Handsome.
Strong characters make lasting first impressions. There are many ways to introduce new characters, but if you do it using physical description, make sure your descriptions sing. No blue-eyed, middle-aged, suit-wearing redheads here.
“He was almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide. He looked simply too big to be allowed, and so wild – long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of dustbin lids and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.”
Talk about making an entrance. Through her introduction of Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling gives us more than a factual description. Here is a character of true Bunyanesque proportions. The details of the “dustbin lids” and “baby dolphins” put us in mind of someone who is improbable, but also innocuous and possibly lovable. Told through another author’s pen, Hagrid could easily turn scary, but the phrase, “simply too big to be allowed” puts him firmly in the realm of wonder and whimsy. Her description not only creates a vivid picture of Hagrid in our minds, it adds to the magical atmosphere of the novel as a whole.
The best physical descriptions work on more than one level. Nobody cares if your character has green eyes, fiery hair or stubby fingers, unless you give them a reason to do so. After all, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” according to Aristotle at least. So, hone in on those physical traits that reveal something deeper about your character’s inner life, forward the plot, build theme or otherwise enhance your story.
“Her eyes used to be as bright blue as a summer sky, but now they looked like jeans faded from too many tumbles through a washing machine.”
This is how young Felicity Pickle describes her mother’s eyes in Natalie Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic. The color itself isn’t important. It’s the road weariness, the sense that her mother’s wandering has worn her down and she’s ready for a change. After all, this is a story about the magic of going home.
2. Do You See What I See?
The grand entrance is just the start of building hard-to-forget characters. Once you’ve hooked readers, give them a deeper insight into how your character’s mind works. One way to do this is to focus on how your character views other people. After all, the way we see others can say as much about our personality as the person we’re describing. Listen to how Nick Dunne describes Mrs. Collings, the mother of his wife’s would-be stalker, in Gone Girl:
“I stared at the hollow of her neck and wondered why she wasn’t wearing a noose of pearls. Women like these always have thick strands of pearls to click and clack. I could smell her, though, a female scent, vaginal and strangely lewd” (Gone Girl, Nick Dunne, Five Days Gone).
This passage not only tells us something about how Nick views women in general, but particularly his wife, Amy, who looks strikingly similar to Mrs. Collings. The noose of pearls betrays his anger toward his wife, but also the power she holds over him as Mrs. Collings clicks and clacks the “noose,” turning what could be a device of suicide into a potential weapon. Her vaginal smell is at once dangerous and alluring. This mirrors the relationship Nick has with his wife, with her as the predator and him as the not totally unwilling prey.
The way characters view the world around them can also be revealing. In Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, a story told from the perspective of a captive gorilla, Ivan says, “A jungle scene is painted on one of my domain walls. It has a waterfall without water and flowers without scent and trees without roots.” Applegate manages to fit all of Ivan’s longing for freedom in those few simple words.
3. A Dash of Narrative Distance, a Touch of Hyperbole.
Interior monologue isn’t the only way to give readers insight into your characters. Taking a step back, in terms of POV, can lend your characters a mystique that takes them from ordinary to iconic.
“A panic had spread and the more high-strung of Sally’s classmates were already whispering witchery. . . . Several children had fainted; some would be phobic about cats for the rest of their lives.”
So says Alice Hoffman when describing one of the two Owens sisters who feature in her novel, Practical Magic. By allowing distance not only in POV, but also in terms of time, readers know right away that Sally is no average suburban girl. This is a novel of magic, after all, albeit in an everyday setting, and Sally has had a dramatic, lasting effect on those around her. Sally’s sister, Gillian, gets a no less legendary treatment:
“Boys looked at her and got so dizzy they had to be rushed to the emergency room for a hit of oxygen or a pint of new blood.”
Descriptions like this make Practical Magic a kind of modern tall tale, as is Jerry Spinelli’s middle grade novel, Maniac Magee.