In the past – say around Dickens’ time – often writers would employ the clunky technique of establishing characters by stopping the story and then describing a character in detail: clothing, shape of brow, past indiscretions, jaw shape, blemishes, the whole bit. Characters were doomed to their roles from the start by birthmarks, the shape of their heads, club feet, curly hair, a “laughing mouth” – both negative and positive visual descriptors chosen by authors to pre-dispose their characters.
Of course, that method was passé when Hemingway started his writing career in the 1920′s and thoroughly obsolete within another ten years as authors realized that stories should be developed by characters who reacted to forces around them and revealed their true natures as the story progressed.
When I introduce characters to my reader, I use very few descriptors, and I trust the reader to build a visual of any character in their own minds (after all, that’s where a story takes place, NOT on the page) although I may provide some clues at the beginning of a story as to appearance and names:
One set of slightly chubby bare legs ending atop orange flip-flops stopped, turned, and then knelt in front of Alex.
“Hey, Alex. Whatcha reading?” The face of her friend Arianna, circled by her brown curls, came into focus.
My character’s personalities are developed via conflict and revealed via dialogue:
At precisely 4 pm, Eb turned to Alex. “Well. Thanks so much for helping. You’re not much for talking, are you? I like that in a girl.”
She stared at him. “Oh, yeah? And what else do you like in a girl?”
He barked a single laugh. “Wouldn’t you like to know? I suppose you have someone in mind? Okay. She has to be intelligent, a good conversationalist, and of course a good writer. Not too fat, not too skinny, not too pretty or ugly. Those types are always possessed with the effect that their faces have, or trying to cover them up.”
“Not too picky, are you? I think I could find someone like that. How do you feel about public librarians?”
I try never to reveal details directly to the reader, which I consider “author intrusion”. If the MC doesn’t see something, MC doesn’t speak about it; if something is important enough to include in a story, a secondary character will have to speak up. However, I almost never leave the MC’s POV and only in a device like a brief prologue, like the following where the MC is not aware of an impending influenza epidemic which has first struck down the boy here:
The child lies quietly in the single bed, only his face and neck visible above the coverlet that rises and falls with each strained breath he draws. His mother sits next to his bed and listens helplessly as the rate of his breathing increases, his chest rattling each time each he inhales and exhales. The room slowly darkens. She doesn’t want to light the gas lamp on the wall, so she rises from her chair and sweeps open the pair of gauze curtains and peers outside through the frost-rimmed windowpane. The setting sun tinges the edges of the few clouds in the west with an orange glow that contrasts with their dark centers, and she notices the silhouette of a single large bird headed south.
A cough from the boy prompts her to turn around. His arm is flung across his pillow from under the coverlet, and she realizes that his face and neck are covered with perspiration. His cheeks, which had been flushed earlier, are now a dark purple hue, almost mahogany. She reaches into the basin on the stand next to his bed to pull a washcloth from it, and she carefully wrings it out and wipes his forehead first, then under his chin, and finally around his mouth and nose, being careful not to block his breathing. She doesn’t notice the smear of blood on the washcloth until she turns to dip it into the basin again.
She stares at the stain on the cloth and turns towards her son. Again he coughs, more violently this time, and blood spurts from his nose and mouth across the coverlet. She quickly squeezes the cloth and applies it around his mouth and nose and dabs at the coverlet, and then she drops it into the basin, falls back onto the chair, and puts her hands over her eyes in despair.
The silence grows. She forces herself to pull her hands from her face, and now she sees that the coverlet no longer rises and falls.
Trusting my readers to fill in the blanks that I leave for them … avoiding “head-hopping” … and revealing personality via dialogue are techniques I’ve learned from countless effective writers. After all, the best writing textbook is a well-written novel.