Kay: Who are these people?

What unique details about these outfits could you say that would create an image and reveal character?

What unique details about these women could you say that would create an image and reveal character?

I’ve been doing the first revision pass on my WIP, and I’ve been thinking about my characters that are nonwhite. The main secondary character in my WIP is Southeast Asian Indian. He’s a cab driver. I made him a cab driver because all the best cabbies I’ve driven with have been from India. Of course, some of the best computer programmers I’ve met have been Indian, too, but even just writing that down makes me wonder: Have I stereotyped my character? Am I thinking in stereotypes?

According to story consultant Michael Hauge, the storyteller’s job is to create images. Your readers want to picture who is doing what. To succeed at that, all the elements of your story need to be clear and vivid. And, with luck, unique. Not stereotypes.

One thing we talked about in the McDaniel program was avoiding generalities in characterization. If character details are too broad, they might not trigger a specific image, or they might not reveal enough to elicit an emotional response.

Jenny always said, use just a couple of words. Don’t define these folks only by their function—boss, mother, dentist, customer—because they’re hard to picture and hard to invest in. Summaries don’t work, either. Remember “show, don’t tell”? Don’t state a character’s personality, conflict, need, or desire without providing evidence to back it up (something you show the reader). Let readers see that your character is “vindictive” or “a local hero” and don’t assume they’ll believe a description like that just because you said so.

And yet, specificity still isn’t enough. Consider this: “Mary, a petite, red-haired debutante, grabbed her coat.” What’s wrong with that? The details create an image, but the details don’t matter to the story and they reveal nothing about the character.

You want to show two or three clear, succinct, vivid details that 1) paint a picture in the minds of your readers and 2) convey the essence of that character. You’re going for an external something and an internal something for your character.

For example, one way to be specific and creative with characterization is with clothing, even though that seems like a hopelessly clichéd idea. Still, what a person wears reveals more about her personality than her height, build, and age. Imagine that a movie star at the height of her fame went to the Academy Awards and wore a skirt by Valentino and a T-shirt from the Gap. What does that say about this person? (That’s what Sharon Stone did.)

I’m reminded that I don’t have to say or describe a lot to reveal something significant about my Indian—and other—characters. If the characterization is unique to that person, I’ll avoid (I hope) stereotypes. Now, back to those revisions.



14 thoughts on “Kay: Who are these people?

  1. Oh, that’s a tough one. I want more diversity in my books, but I’m afraid of the stereotype trap. I suppose the trick is to make sure the cabbie acts Indian, but acts as an individual as well? As long as the guy is a good cabbie, I don’t think it’s racist if most of the best cabbies IYE (in your experience) are Indian. If he’s a sucky cabbie . . . I would think twice about assigning him a race as “atmosphere.”

    (-: Love the caption question. The terrible tragedy of the Twisted Neck Women was the first thing that popped out at me. Caroline takes it well. It’s a funny old thing, life, and at least I wasn’t crippled or killed by the disease, she says. Francisca, though, can not rise above it. She turns her face away from the world, and sighs. Imogene is completely washed out by the experience . . . .

    • Love your tragedy of the Twisted Neck Woman! Hilarious.

      I hope I’m doing a good job with my cab driver. My heroine needed a best friend, and she doesn’t drive, and she has to get around. And so I gave her a great cabbie. When it goes out for beta reads, we’ll see how others think he works out!

      • I like a colorful character. As long as he is popping out at you, I think you have to write him as you see him. If you have to tame him down, it’ll be a pain, but do-able. Having to sparkly-up a character must be a real Excederin-strength pain in the final drafts. Because those extra sparkles can change everything else in the book sometimes . . . .

  2. Very timely, Kay, thank you. I’m working on an “introduction” scene for key secondary characters and I need to anchor them in the audience’s mind in just a few words.

  3. I remember we talked about your Indian secondary character, Kay. He sounded like a lot of fun and he was so much more than a cab driver – that was his occupation but not the way you described him. He was a real person, with his own goals and strengths and flaws, so I never thought of him as a stereotype.

    My take on the caption question. I think the three beautiful, wealthy sisters are the talk of the town, and they’re knee-deep in admirers. Bianca is unmarried and virginal. She’s terrified of making eye contact in case she causes a scandal and ends up married to a fortune-hunter. Skye is happily married and turns her back on every man except her husband. And Rosa is a merry widow with a welcoming smile 😉 .

    • Sanjay definitely plays a big part in the book. And in revisions, I gave him a fiancé, too! I love fiction. So much better than real life. 🙂 The beautiful sisters! How perfect. I’m already worried about Bianca. She needs a protector.

  4. In my new book, the protagonist’s best friend since high school is African American. One of the reasons I’m hoping I can pull this off is because I have friends who are black that I can trust to read the manuscript and help me fix anything I screw up without hating me for being so hopelessly out of touch and stereotypical in my views. The bonus is, I’ll learn something along the way.

    • I’m sure you have these characters nailed, but if you can get beta readers who are sensitive to the issues, so much the better. As a consequence of the Arizona trip, I just recently reread some Tony Hillerman, and somewhere in a foreword or afterword, he talked about the help Navajo friends gave him for various scenes. It’s a two-way street, I think: you want rich and fully engaged characters, and readers want to be represented like that, too.

  5. This is very timely for me as I must finished my 1st pass of edits. I really just fixed sentences. I added some detail, but haven’t actually dug in and checked each scene for GMC, showing, action/emotion, etc. I did realize that I have not given Sarah’s motivation for her project anywhere. I think the reader definitely needs that to understand why she keeps pushing rather than giving up. I also have characters who aren’t really described at all – Finch’s secretary, Sarah’s assistant and more. Off to fix characters.

    • Some secondary characters probably don’t need much description, especially if they don’t appear often—or even have names. But it’s great if you can get them more fully fleshed out. How many movies have we seen where the secondary character is the one you remember? Best wishes on that next edit pass!

  6. Perfect Kay – that’s really useful. Blushing with shame at all my non-unique, non-relevant to the story, descriptions.

    • You’re probably being too hard on yourself, Rachel! On the upside, everyone seems to agree that short descriptions are what you’re looking for, as long as they’re specific. Could be fun thinking what makes your secondary characters stand out.

  7. This is sort of related….I read a post recently by Darla Denton (darlagdenton.com) about minority/human representation in characters…she brought it up during Black History Month, discussing the under-representation of minorities in romance, but took it a step further to also mention how different sizes and shapes are under-represented, too. That everyone is tall, slim, and beautiful. (She describes herself as a “curvy romance writer.”)

    It made me determined to have something REAL about my characters in each book. Either they’re overweight, have scars on their face, are unattractive, something (hard for me to do the minority thing in a Regency, but I have toyed with the idea of doing a Belle-esque type story, where the friend/half-sibling is a minority).

    I know when I get around to Jeanne’s story (she’s one of Nate’s triplet sisters), her true love will be a blind man, who lost his sight at Waterloo. Jessica’s (second triplet) true love will be a bit along the Asperger’s spectrum…not very socially aware/suave, but wicked smart (turns out she is too…she just plays the silly socialite to hide it from everyone).

    Susannah’s sister, Isabelle, is going to be a plump and petite thing; sweet, but not ravishing. Of course, to her true love, Captain Hedlington, she’s gorgeous.

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