Presence of Character

Presence of Character

Ray Bradbury said that if you can put your reader into your character's skin, they'll believe anything. He meant that if you can make a reader see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the setting of your story, they will react to your story the same way your character would. That is what you want to accomplish. You want your reader to identify with your characters so well that they become them in a small way. And one of the pivotal ingredients in creating that identification is by turning on all of the reader's senses – and no, I'm not just talking about the usual five.

When you walk into a room, an awful lot happens that most people are completely unaware of, but you as a writer better be picking up on every little thing that's going on.

Let's say you walk into the foyer of an old house from its front porch. A poor writer would just say, "Ella walked into the foyer." But if you're going to put your reader into your character's skin, you have to include the pertinent info from the senses.

First, if it's a bright afternoon, that foyer is going to be dark because old houses didn't have the large windows of today's houses. Why is that important to note? The character is going to have an emotional reaction to that difference. If you go from a bright day into a dark foyer, you're going to be blinking as your eyes adjust. You're going to be at a disadvantage because you'll be partially blind. If your story is about Ella the twelve-year old sneaking into someone's house, you bet that darkness will have an emotional impact on her. If Ella is a business woman who's come home to her parents' house for the first time in twenty years, again, that darkness will have meaning to her because she's entering a world that's insulated from her world.

The symbolism can run amok here, but the important thing is that you are giving the reader that feeling of momentary blindness, and if you've been doing your job, the reader will have roughly the same emotional reaction that your character will have.

While getting the emotional reaction from your character, the darkness also gives crucial setting detail. It's an old house, and old houses didn't have the big windows of today's homes, so without even saying "it was an old house" or "it was a house with small windows," you've put the impression of an old house into the reader's head. Again, if you've been doing this all along in your story, you might never have to mention that the house is old because the reader will understand it from the myriad of similar details you've mentioned before, such as the feel of the dirt road that led to the house, the fact that the house's porch bends down on either side like a frown, etc. This is all part of my cardinal rule: Make everything do more than one thing. Pick the setting details that describe not only the environment, but also the character's emotions.

What else happens when you walk into that foyer? You smell it. Are you just going to describe the smell, or are you going to do dual-duty and make the description mean something?

A friend of mine described an old house's smell as one "before electricity and plastics and modern cleansers, even though it now had all those things." It worked wonderfully for me. I could smell the old wood and plaster of the house as well as the newer things that were now in it. And there was an emotional context of a lost age that was a theme in the story. There are the sounds of squeaky floorboards and the feel of the screen of the porch door moving under your palm, but you don't have to include every sense – just the ones that illustrate both the setting and the character. Too often writers will get carried away with their descriptions, which may be wonderful in themselves, but may be only taking up valuable space when the salient points have already been delivered.

The second part of getting your reader into your character's presence is paying attention to your character's attention.