Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Oh, say, can you see?

By Martha Reed

Whenever someone tells me they’ve read one of my stories, I make it a point to ask for feedback. I’m way past the point where I take things personally, and I believe that when I hear first person criticism or comments about my work that if I can learn from it, it will make me a better writer next time.

I heard one such comment over the weekend. The mother of a friend read my Nantucket mystery novel and said she wished I had detailed the characters better. She had trouble imagining what they looked like. That surprised me, because I’m very careful about delineating my characters and I deliberately try not to put too much information in my stories thinking that the reader will want to fill in some of the pertinent details themselves. The remark did make me go back though and take a good hard look at my characters, and since I have a story that continues across more than one novel, I decided I needed to create a character bible.

A character bible is a wonderful writerly tool. I started a folder with plastic sleeves, and whenever I come across a magazine advertisement with a model that catches my eye I clip it out and put it in my bible. Each of my characters has a page with their name on it, and the binder is filling up with visual information. Sometimes the people in the advertisements who represent one specific character don’t even really resemble each other but there was something about a glance or a look or even a pose that reminds me of one aspect of that particular character.

Sometimes I save pictures of movie stars. Personally, I think that’s a little like cheating although I see it all the time and I’ve used it myself. For instance, if you want a quick description you have someone in the book say: “He looked just like Paul Newman.” Easy fix.

Continuity Girl

An additional benefit to a character bible, especially when you write over a period of time, is you create continuity, especially among secondary characters. If Scott has auburn hair in book one, he doesn’t suddenly go carrot red later on. Characters with glasses can keep using them to make a point. And I’m proving the best use of this tool as I age; nowadays, when I forget exactly which type of car Sue drives I can easily look it up in my bible rather than flipping through the pages looking for the original text!


Anonymous said...

What a great idea, Martha! I can imagine it's easier to write description when you have a picture sitting in front of you. Plus, it sounds fun.

I'll have to try it.

P.S. My word verification is "Nesse." Something to do with the Loch Ness monster, perhaps?

Annette said...

I do something similar. I keep a notebook full of character and location descriptions as well as notes on past relationships between characters. I draw maps of the locations that I make up with notes about where different characters live. This becomes more and more vital in a series, as you mentioned.

I keep pictures, but I'm betting my collection isn't nearly as neat as yours. Mine are all shoved into one cubby of my desk.

Tory, I think we should save all these word verifications and use them to start a new language.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Remember, all the praise in the world doesn't make out stories better. It's that good constructive critisism that helps.

I create a complete bio for my main characters so I can keep them consistent with thier own personalities.

This is great advice.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, I can't imagine wanting so detailed a description of a character. I know authors feel an obligation to do so, but I never heed it. The situation and a few details creates a picture in my head, rarely anything like the detailed description, which I would really know since I never finish reading them.
Different strocks, and I concede to your authority since you are published and I am not.