Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or on her author website.
I've been re-reading the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This is the first time I've read the book as a writer, and I was impressed with how well she characterized the girls from the very start. Their words and actions always fit who they are. Toward the end of chapter one, she gives a one-paragraph summary description of the girls. Today, it would be against the writing rules to put such an information-dump paragraph anywhere in your book, let alone in the first chapter, but when this was published, no such rule existed. Let's take a look at each girl's description and see how well the author characterized them in such a short time.
First we have Meg, the eldest:
"Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain."In the mid-1860s, being plump was a positive attribute and showed wealth. We see here that Meg is beautiful and we are let in on her one flaw of vanity over her white hands.
Next we have Jo:
"Fifteen- year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it."This paragraph tells us so much about Jo, which makes sense as she is the main character (and represents the author of the book). Her description reminds me of an adolescent boy, all hands and feet, awkward. This is brilliant because Jo is very much a tomboy, who often wishes in the story that she had been born a boy. I love the descriptions of "colt" and "flyaway look," that give the reader a visual. And her one beauty of her hair being bundled into a net tells us that she couldn't care less about being pretty. The paragraph ends by letting us know that Jo is not pleased about growing up, and this is an important clue to many of Jo's trials to come.
Next comes Beth who is very much the opposite of Jo:
"Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth- haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression which was seldom disturbed. Her father called her `Little Miss Tranquility', and the name suited her excellently, for she seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved."This description of Beth is spot-on. The title "Little Miss Tranquility" sums her up perfectly, and the surrounding sentences reinforce it with words like "shy," "timid," and "peaceful." I particularly love that she lives in her own "happy world" and invites in only a few trusted individuals.
Finally, we are introduced to Amy:
"Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her own opinion at least. A regular snow maiden, with blue eyes, and yellow hair curling on her shoulders, pale and slender, and always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners."The most important thing about Miss Amy is that she thinks herself to be "a most important person." She is quite spoiled, and as such, when wronged, she tends to view her most important opinions as completely justifying her behavior. I also find it interesting that she is the only sister with blond hair, so her looks set her apart from the others.
As was common in classic stories, narrative descriptions were placed near the start to let readers perfectly envision the characters immediately. These descriptions feel perfect because we have been told who the characters are before we experience much of their words or actions. Therefore we can picture their behaviors and actions based on the description given up front. In modern novels, most authors strive to follow the rule: "show, don't tell." Characters are instead revealed by their actions and words, and readers discover more of them as the story progresses.
Despite the rules, writing narrative descriptions such as these can be extremely useful to you, the author, as the process will help you envision your characters from the start, whether or not you ever put these descriptions in your book. As you write, you can let every word and action of your characters match their narrative description.
Now it's your turn. Write a two-four sentence paragraph about your main character and post it in the comments below. Take special effort to chose each word carefully. And remember, this time only, "tell, don't show!"