Author Topic: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience  (Read 296 times)

Tom Wood

For 'reasons' I want to use character descriptions that reference the reader's life experience.

'She looks like that girl who lived across the street from you.'

'He looks like a young version of your favorite actor.'

I know that will throw the reader out of the story at that moment, but I'm willing to take the risk.

Has anyone seen this done in examples of fiction that you can point to?

 

Lysmata Debelius

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #1 on: March 10, 2019, 06:15:43 AM »
Only with a first person narrator. Can't think of an example right now though.
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Lysmata Debelius

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #2 on: March 10, 2019, 06:20:47 AM »
... Although now that I think about it, doesn't this happen in "The Princess Bride"? And also in some of the Narnia books. Pretty sure that "The Silver Chair" has a passage in which the writer refers to the kind of bullies that the reader would have known at school.
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idontknowyet

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #3 on: March 10, 2019, 02:12:38 PM »
I wouldn't actually think of a real person when you said that. It wouldn't take me out of the story, because the girl next door is a look.  Looking like an actor makes you think of a specific type not a person.
 

Tom Wood

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #4 on: March 10, 2019, 02:26:59 PM »
I wouldn't actually think of a real person when you said that. It wouldn't take me out of the story, because the girl next door is a look.  Looking like an actor makes you think of a specific type not a person.

That's even better! Would the images in your mind's eye of the 'look' and 'type' be sufficient for you to move ahead with the story without any more description of those characters? Could you see them well enough, maybe with a little more context in terms of clothing and setting?
 

Gerri Attrick

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #5 on: March 10, 2019, 09:53:03 PM »
Are you talking about breaking the fourth wall here, or is it one character talking to another?
 

Tom Wood

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #6 on: March 10, 2019, 10:10:37 PM »
Breaking the fourth wall, but only in very short instances to introduce a character to the reader.
 

VanessaC

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #7 on: March 11, 2019, 12:06:03 AM »
Is this first person? I can see it working with that. 

The only example I can remember of breaking the fourth wall I've read was at the very end of a Charles Stross book about a robot (Saturn's Children) - it's very, very cleverly done and had me laughing out loud. (Can't work out how to do a spoiler alert, so won't share more here.)

I can't think of any character description examples to share, sorry, but I'm using this as an excuse to share a favourite quote of mine - I haven't read the book but this was quoted in an article on writing about how to introduce / describe characters:

"A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." (Raymond Chandler)

I think whether it fits / jerks the reader out of the story will depend on your writing style, and how it's done. And if it's problematic when you're writing, you could always shy away from the fourth wall (if you want to!) and be more general: "He looked like a younger, leaner version of everyone's favourite actor." (That's poor, I know - I'm sure you can do better.)
 

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Tom Wood

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #8 on: March 11, 2019, 12:35:21 AM »
Cinematic (aka objective) present tense, so it's going to throw the reader out of the story each time for a moment. That's okay because I want each reader to construct their own vision of the characters.

ETA: It's Cyberpunk with a flavor of LitRPG. LitRPG already has a tolerance for intrusions in the narrative with the game statistics, so I think what I want to do will slide by.

I took a look at Saturn's Children. In the epilogue he addresses the reader as 'you' - is that the part? Stross really likes second person POV - Rule 34 is entirely in second person.

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« Last Edit: March 11, 2019, 12:57:46 AM by Tom Wood »
 

VanessaC

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #9 on: March 11, 2019, 03:10:41 AM »
Sounds like it will work well.

As for Charles Stross, I haven't read everything he's written and hadn't noticed second person - now I think of it, there is a bit of what feels like "talking to camera" in the Laundry files.  Hmmm. Anyway, back to Saturn's Children, let me see if I can get this right ...

Spoiler: ShowHide
So, the story is, of course, about a sex robot (but very classy, of course ...), and the scene I was thinking of is basically a sex scene right towards the end where he complete calls out the reader's prurient interest more or less saying "so, you want to know what happens?".  I read it years ago, so my memory may be faulty about where the scene is, but addressing the reader is quite beautifully done.
 

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feste

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #10 on: March 11, 2019, 04:04:13 AM »
Cinematic (aka objective) present tense, so it's going to throw the reader out of the story each time for a moment. That's okay because I want each reader to construct their own vision of the characters.

ETA: It's Cyberpunk with a flavor of LitRPG. LitRPG already has a tolerance for intrusions in the narrative with the game statistics, so I think what I want to do will slide by.

I would think that if you're consistently breaking the fourth wall, then the "descriptions" wouldn't be a problem.  (When I first read them in your post, the phrases did seem intrusive, but if you-the-author address the reader elsewhere in the book, it should work better.)  Though I tend to shoehorn my favorite actors into what I'm reading, anyway, and wouldn't need the invitation.  Grin
 

bardsandsages

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #11 on: March 14, 2019, 11:27:51 PM »
For 'reasons' I want to use character descriptions that reference the reader's life experience.

'She looks like that girl who lived across the street from you.'

'He looks like a young version of your favorite actor.'

I know that will throw the reader out of the story at that moment, but I'm willing to take the risk.

Has anyone seen this done in examples of fiction that you can point to?

I don't remember the girl that lived across the street from me.

A good writer can pull off anything. That said, I usually stop reading stories that try to make me part of the story, which is what you are doing in this case. The fact is, it is terribly presumptuous of you to "assume" you know my life experiences, even in such a general context.

"'He looks like a young version of your favorite actor.'"

And if my favorite actor happens to be Hispanic, Asian, or African-American, does that actually jive with the story?

Just feels gimmicky to me.
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munboy

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #12 on: March 15, 2019, 04:31:07 AM »
You have to be careful to not include something that might take a reader out of the story. For example, I grew up in a house my stepdad inherited from his mom in a neighborhood full of people who remembered that one time God decided to flood the Earth. There was no "girl next door" for me. Using "girl next door" invokes a certain image based on popular culture, but adding the "you" makes it more personal for some, but disengages the narrative for others. Proceed with caution.
 

Tom Wood

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #13 on: March 15, 2019, 05:54:51 AM »
...

"'He looks like a young version of your favorite actor.'"

And if my favorite actor happens to be Hispanic, Asian, or African-American, does that actually jive with the story?

...

That is actually accomplishing the very thing I'm trying to achieve - add diversity to the cast of characters without invoking the 'default to white' assumption by the reader.

Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

There are any number of ways to do this, I'll experiment.

I don't mind if this throws the reader out of the story for a moment, that's the goal for this - to help them picture a relatable character that lives in their own memories.
 

Solitary Dan

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #14 on: March 15, 2019, 01:50:56 PM »
Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

What if there wasn't one?  :icon_think:
     
 

She-la-te-da

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #15 on: March 15, 2019, 09:20:41 PM »
Why not just describe the character and not risk pissing off a reader? The girls next door to me looked like hoodlums, and that would probably not be the response you're going for. And I have no idea who half the people I see referenced are, so telling me he looked like some actor or singer or web guru wouldn't help me at all.
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bardsandsages

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #16 on: March 15, 2019, 10:22:25 PM »
That is actually accomplishing the very thing I'm trying to achieve - add diversity to the cast of characters without invoking the 'default to white' assumption by the reader.

Character development is about more than race. It is about body language, behaviors, diction, word choice. In your scenario, once I as a reader "establish" the character as, say, Samuel L. Jackson, every...single...time that character does NOT act in a way I imagine Jackson would act (because you forced me into the story and made me cast the character for you) you are going to break my immersion. Because character and, more importantly, diversity, is about more than the outside cosmetic appearance. Because frankly, if minority characters behave EXACTLY like white characters and have the identical life experiences of white characters and are otherwise just "default white" characters with a paint job, that isn't actually diversity.
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PJ Post

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #17 on: March 16, 2019, 12:25:04 AM »
I think this is fine-ish for side characters, especially in first person narratives, but I wouldn't recommend doing it with main characters. We need to get to know them, as Julie noted, through their actions - just like we get to know people in real life. I think any descriptive shorthand in this regard would lessen the immersion and therefore, the engagement of the reader - like, a lot.

However, I agree with Julie's point on diversity. I wouldn't use this shorthand to address inclusion. As far as I'm concerned, everything about a character is like Chekhov's gun. There needs to be a story/character/setting/plot reason for who our characters are, otherwise, why are we writing the story about them?
 

Tom Wood

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #18 on: March 16, 2019, 12:35:38 AM »
Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

What if there wasn't one?  :icon_think:

Did you still create an image in your mind's eye?
 

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Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #19 on: March 16, 2019, 12:51:14 AM »
Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

What if there wasn't one?  :icon_think:

Did you still create an image in your mind's eye?

No.

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Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #20 on: March 16, 2019, 02:02:18 AM »
...

"'He looks like a young version of your favorite actor.'"

And if my favorite actor happens to be Hispanic, Asian, or African-American, does that actually jive with the story?

...

That is actually accomplishing the very thing I'm trying to achieve - add diversity to the cast of characters without invoking the 'default to white' assumption by the reader.

Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

There are any number of ways to do this, I'll experiment.

I don't mind if this throws the reader out of the story for a moment, that's the goal for this - to help them picture a relatable character that lives in their own memories.

I donít like to state absolutes when it comes to story but this is a definite no. You canít throw readers or movie goers or whatever out of a story. You write to get them absorbed and keep them absorbed. When something throws me out of a story I hate it. Itís distracting and hard to get back into it.

I take it youíre trying to make the characters diverse and relatable. But youíre better off doing that through something like the use of emotions. It doesnít matter your sex, race, creed, color, looks etc we all have heartbreak, fall in love, get angry, get sad etc. We may experience it a bit differently but there are common emotions that you can build into your characters/story through a variety of techniques that makes it more personal for the reader.  If I can feel your characters heartbreak over a breakup or fear at seeing a monster, Iím going to keep on reading to see what happens & it wonít matter what they look like.
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idontknowyet

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #21 on: March 16, 2019, 02:30:52 AM »
Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

What if there wasn't one?  :icon_think:

Did you still create an image in your mind's eye?

No.

I have to agree that would confuse me. Substitute teachers don't have a unified look.
Like when you think the girl next door you don't think of one specific person you think of a general set of characteristics. Pretty but not stunning. Bubbly but not fake. Neither tall or short. Kind not catty. Etc
 

Solitary Dan

Re: Character descriptions - referencing the reader's life experience
« Reply #22 on: March 16, 2019, 03:02:32 AM »
Yeah, 'girl next door' is too close to a cliche. How about: "She looks like that substitute teacher you liked so much."

What if there wasn't one?  :icon_think:

Did you still create an image in your mind's eye?

I had to stop and think.  I could only think of two substitute teachers that I remembered.  One was a guy.  Does your character look like a guy?  I don't know.  I mean, I wouldn't describe him as "that substitute teacher you liked so much."  I didn't not like him.  I guess I liked him fine, but I wouldn't describe him as someone I liked "so much."  That kind of implies I looked forward to seeing the substitute teacher or something.  I met him again some time after graduation when I made copies of his resume for him.  (I work in printing.)  He seemed to be a nice guy out of the classroom too and I hope he got a good teaching position somewhere.  The second was a woman.  If you meant "liked so much" in a sarcastic way, then maybe it works.  I don't remember what she looks like.  I only remember that she was pretty much a horrible person that should probably never be around kids.  I cannot believe the school system later hired her as a full-time teacher and apparently not the guy.  On the plus side, I guess that meant she didn't come to us for resume copies and, thus, I never had the misfortune of seeing her again.

And now I kind of vaguely remember another substitute teacher.  She was okay.  I guess since I only vaguely remember her, it'd be difficult to describe her as one I "liked so much."

So, I don't know.  Such a description would tend to throw me out of the story as I tried to think of someone your description wants me to think of.

Bear in mind too that some references may force the reader to dig deep into their memories, depending on age.  A college-aged reader is probably going to have an easier time remembering a substitute teacher they had than a retiree-aged reader.

I'm all for experimentation in writing.  I mean, I've had characters punch the reader, for example.  But, I'm not sure how this one is going to work.  If you're too non-specific, you run falling into clichťs as you've already observed.  If you're too specific, you risk throwing the reader out of the story trying to come up with something--more so if they have no frame of reference, such as if you describe a character as looking like "that substitute teacher you liked so much" when the reader was home-schooled.