To make readers translate the fiction written on the page into truth, writers have to produce details. Details are like scalpels. In the right hands, they’re very effective. In the wrong hands, they’re very dangerous. The way that a writer describes a character can bring him or her to life, end up reading like a laundry list, sound too cliché, make readers put down a book unfinished, or any one of many other possible situations.
Below are some examples of techniques I enjoy seeing writers use to make their fictitious lies seem a little bit more like truths:
Before his medical condition had been diagnosed, back in the time he thought everyone could taste sounds, rather than just him and a handful of others in the world, he had once been almost fatally distracted when a Beatles song suddenly flooded his mouth with rotting meat. Life was just a roller coaster of unexpected sensations when you had synesthesia.’
For those who aren’t familiar with synesthesia please enjoy the following visual aid:
I’m not saying every character has to actually have synesthesia (a condition where one sense, like taste, is perceived by one or more other senses such as sound) in a novel, but we certainly can slip some synesthesia inspired lines into our descriptions. Taste shouldn’t be limited to foods or drinks just like sound shouldn’t just refer to only audial experiences. The neon mango orange paint’s screaming drowned out all other sounds. Fresh coffee feels like sunshine dancing across the skin. Playing around with the sensory experiences we all have opens a world of descriptive possibilities that can be fresh and wonderful.
Describing little things people usually don’t notice
You can tell a lot from a person’s nails. When a life starts to unravel, they’re among the first to go.
’Have a care how you speak to me, Imp.’ Doubtless he meant to sound threatening, but that absurd wisp of a mustache ruined the effect.
A Clash of Kings
George R.R. Martin
There are tons of books where character’s eyes, lips, or hair are described thoroughly. While there are many innovative approaches made toward these parts, there is also a missed opportunity at highlighting something different. In books, just like in real life, the smallest detail can stay on your mind for days while still maintaining absolute meaninglessness. Think about that guy who wears two different colored socks. Noticing that he has different socks on does nothing to your day, yet it’s still memorable. Adding that detail to a book is like adding a touch of reality. So pay attention to those nails, mustaches, cufflinks, unexpected piercings, and all other miscellaneous parts people forget about.
Making the regular more strange
If a lunatic were to ask me what this tie is for, I would have to say, absolutely nothing. It’s not even purely decorative, since nowadays it’s become a symbol of slavery, power, aloofness. The only really useful function a tie serves is the sense of relief when you get home and take it off; you feel as if you’ve freed yourself from something, though quite what you don’t know.
Veronika Decides to Die
What I love about the Coelho quote above is how he takes the simple everyday activity of wearing a tie and turns it into a question that describes so much about the character. There are hundreds of things that we do every day that become such second nature that few people think to question them. Why do we drive on this side of the road? What does it say about Mark that his most stanch belief is that the metric system will catch on? How does your character react when they finish their cereal and still have milk left? We can understand so much about a character just by learning what their viewpoint is on a subject that is so commonplace.
These are just some of the many things I notice in novels’ details that stand out to me. If you have some of your own favorite tools for details, please share them below.