Give them what’s in a character’s brain…

Word count: 300 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today I discuss an article written by novelist Silas House…

I’ve not yet written any fiction, although I’ve contemplated the idea. As a result, I savoured a recent New York Times Opinionator column by Silas House. Titled “Tell Their Secrets,” the article argues, convincingly, that most important job facing fiction writers is to create memorable characters.

This point might strike you as obvious and, indeed it is. But I appreciated the detail House used — particularly his exhortation not to focus on what your character looks like. Here is what he said:

Readers are better informed if we give them what is in a character’s brain, not what is on her body. Yet people continually want to write about a character’s clothes, his height, or the color of his hair or eyes. These things rarely matter because they don’t tell us about the kind of person with whom we’re dealing. Humans are not that physically different, after all. But all of our hearts and minds are individual, stamped with our own wonderful and terrible secrets.

This is one of my principal complaints about much so-called “chick-lit” — the continual focus on clothes. Given that the vast majority of clothes are “off-the-rack,” is it not clear to writers that the clothes are not all that special? Or particularly revealing of character?

I also liked the way House reinforced his point by describing memorable characters from his own reading — citing, for example, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird. The next time you’re reading a book, consider the characters. Has the author described their clothing or concentrated on their minds. Which tells you more?

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