We are extremely excited here on the Playground to welcome New York Times bestselling author of historical romances Eloisa James to our swingset! Well-known for leading a double life as a romance writer and Shakespearean professor, Eloisa just released her newest book An Affair Before Christmas on November 13th. Please join us in welcoming her today as we talk about an aspect of writing I'm currently obsessed with: Characterization...
It’s a truth known to every author that the only thing better than beginning a book is ending one. The book that I see in my mind, before writing, is a heart-breakingly wonderful, intricate yet clear novel that will make its readers sigh with joy… The first chapters are all panic, excitement and pleasure. Anything could happen. All sorts of things do.
Yet even in the midst of all that frenzy, I still need to set up a whole world – and that takes some work. Beginning writers often ask me how I come up with all the people in my novels. I’ve actually been thinking how hard it is to create an image of a character that will stick in the reader's mind.
Romance writers can always lovingly describe every muscle the hero has to his name, or the heroine's silky lashes, silky hair, silky breasts...all of it. There's a great poem by Marvell telling his lover that he would praise her breasts for two hundred years: sometimes it feels like that when you're writing romance. A hundred years for each breast, and two hundred more for all the rest. But all that chest description doesn't leave too much time to describe secondary characters – and they are integral to a story line. No matter the kind of novel you’re writing, the world must be peopled with more than the main characters.
I was looking around for help the other day and came across Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. She does it brilliantly. Here's a priest: "a wrinkled, elderly man with a hairless face and brown, dead curly hair that looked like a wig." A girl: "Ruth Bent had red-dish-brown frizzy hair... her voice was deep, like a man's; her skin was swarthy and freckled... she had a good figure, small, with a sort of shimmying movement to it." And here's a hero: "Nevertheless, there was a wild strain in the family. The men were extraordinarily good-looking, dark and black-browed as pirates, with very fair skin and queer lit-up gray-green eyes, fringed by the 'McCarthy eyelashes,' long, black, and thick."
My current novel, Affair Before Christmas, opens at a house party. I introduce the main couple in a prologue set in Paris, and then the novel skips to England and a party at the Duchess of Beaumont’s townhouse. Since this book follows Desperate Duchesses, some readers will know the people at the party, and others won’t. New readers need to be introduced to the complexity of characters who already played roles in the previous book.
One of my favorite characters is the Duke of Villiers. He’s a chess master, wildly intelligent, full of self-loathing, and frequently bored. I create him through clothing. In Affair Before Christmas, he appears at the party just after losing a duel:
“The word cloak brings to mind black velvet: but Villiers wore a sweep of rosy silk, edged in a stiff little ruffle of deep violet taffeta. The ruffle bore a gorgeous pattern of embroidery that resembled iron lattice work… He walked a dangerous boundary, between masculinity and its opposite and yet – as always – his flamboyant clothes managed to make him look more male. Of course, his features weren’t in the least feminine: not that large nose and rough-hewn chin.
There wasn’t another man in England who would have dared to wear the cloak. But Villiers looked like a prince – the kind of prince who has a harem of dancing women, what’s more.
So here's a challenge: Pick a public figure. any public figure, but not one with the plastic beauty of a movie star, because that's hard to describe. And not a politician. Give us one or two good descriptive sentences. And then tell us who it is, so we can all revel in your description.
So let's discuss characterization. Especially those characters you may have to make stick in the readers' minds in just a sentence or two. How do you do it?
Eloisa will be giving away a copy of Desperate Duchesses to one lucky commenter today. Don't worry. The winner won't be judged by skill. Just the fact that you post (even a quick Hi!) will put you in the drawing. Don't forget to check out Eloisa's really cool website: http://www.eloisajames.com/ !