Character Shorthand

Writing fleshed out characters is hard. 

Have you ever noticed there are certain "character short hand" things that some authors use to build up a character without actually taking the work to do it?

Like if a character is a red head, in 90% of the books I've ever read, that means she's feisty and has a bad temper, so telling readers that your character has "red hair" means these things, so you don't have to try any harder (not that all feisty red heads should be avoided, but telling us her hair color can't be the ONLY thing you do to establish "who" she is).

Green eyes: character is unique and mysterious.

Character likes to read: she's a reader, you're a reader, you should connect with her.

Character is clumsy: Ah, she's likable and flawed! How cute ...

Character has a pet: Like her. She likes animals. She's a good person!

It's not that any of these things are "bad," but it is always amusing to me how they often stand in for actual characterization. It's worse in movies where we have to get to know the character based on visuals, usually, and sometimes this can work really well, but other times it's like, "Oh! That character is wearing glasses. He must be nerdy!"

Recently I watched a stupid action/romantic-comedy where the guy kept saving a woman who was a complete and utter idiot. She shrieked and buckled under pressure. She panicked and whatnot. She was a total damsel in distress package, so annoying ... but hey, she had an atypical job for her sex. That must mean she's strong and different. Why bother giving her character beyond "a woman who is also a mechanic?"

The weird thing is, it often works. If you tell me a character is a "mom" I immediately connect with the character's momness without knowing much else about her. The idea of "mom" is established in my brain, both from being one and having one, that it does carry a lot of weight. However, this can't be all you rely on if you want your characters to be more than cardboard cutouts. I may automatically identify with a Mom but if the rest of her is just "blah," you'll start to lose me. Having a character be a reader says something about them, as does loving a pet. However, that's all surface. There are many different sorts of moms or pet lovers. Digging deeper into what makes your character "unique" goes a lot further than a quick paint job of surface traits.


  1. This is so true, and sometimes drives me crazy when I'm reading. Names can do it, too... If you're "Jack", you're going to probably be a trickster/lovable-anti-hero/bad-guy-who's-actually-good of some sort. And the name's everywhere. o.o

    1. Raven's are very mysterious and magical, but with a darkness to them.


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