The Devil and Where He Lives, Part 1

“The devil is in the details.”

People say that all the time. They also say God is in the details, and I think both sayings are true. Regarding fiction, what I’d say is “Reality is in the details.”

Details make things feel real, feel true. Details about a character’s mannerisms make him or her come alive on the page; so can details like speech patterns or body language. But how do you know how much detail to include? Where’s the balance between, “Wow!” and “Oh, my God, who cares what his toenails are like?”

I’d like to say I have the perfect answer that will work in all cases, but I just don’t have one. Experience helps, and I mean experience as in reading. Read and find out how much you like, and how much you’d rather fill in, or have potential readers fill in for themselves. It’s a choice, and sometimes it’s not really that important what a character looks, sounds, and moves like.

Personally, I prefer to know some of what the writers I read were thinking, to hook in to their mental images a little, so I like lots of detail on both characters and settings (especially characters). That’s how I like to write, because I want you to see who I see.

Describing a character all at once, in a lump, is usually pretty boring. I try to spread that out a bit, until readers have a clear picture, and any additional detail I might add just sharpens things. I might even describe toenails; I know I’ve mentioned more than once that Dingus’s fingernails are chewed to the quick. Let the details you choose to include show something new about the character, or remind or reinforce in a new way what we already know (Vandis Vail’s toenail maintenance is sketchy at best!).

To work with characters this way, it’s necessary that you know them well. I don’t use them, but some people find it helpful to use character profiles or interview questions. Even if most, or even all, of your data never appears in your text, you’ll know it, and if you’re thorough, you can extrapolate whatever you need from it.

Good luck with your people! On Monday I’ll rave a little bit about settings, if you care to read.

2 thoughts on “The Devil and Where He Lives, Part 1

  1. The choice of which details to include can set the tone of a scene in subtle ways. If you mention that a man’s hands are calloused and he is wearing heavy boots you’re going to prime the reader to expect a very different sort of scene than if you mention his bright blue eyes and trim waistline–although both descriptions can be of the same character.

    What one character notices about another can imply unstated feelings, and changing what details the characters notice can set the stage for a change in their relationship. If you first introduce the character by describing his hands and boots, and then in a later scene, after your protagonist has gotten to know him, mention his eyes and his figure the reader will understand that the protagonist’s feelings about him have changed–all without internal monologue or exposition.

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