Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Characterization Study on Little Women


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 FacebookTwitterPinterest, 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!"

47 comments:

  1. This sounds fun! Okay, here goes...

    Kate Stillwell was never to be found without a textbook or homework assignment in hand. Although she would certainly classify herself as "nerd", she never wore glasses and always let her thick auburn hair hang loose around her shoulders. Her life of study being such as it was, Kate restricted herself to only three like-minded individuals that she would call "friends".

    Whew. That was harder than I thought. I like it, though. Thanks for the challenge!

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    1. I like it too, Linea. Good job! I particularly like your choice of these words and phrases: classify, life of study, restricted, and like-minded. That vocabulary tells us a lot.

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  2. Thanks for this post! Here's my main character:

    Austin Gray is the punchline of almost every joke his friends and family tell, but he doesn’t let it bother him. He is easygoing and laid back about almost everything and has the most mild temper in his family. He’s often the peacemaker when his brothers fight, and although he is a bit of a pushover sometimes, he could stand up for himself if necessary. -Miriam

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    1. that is a great description of your character's personality.

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    2. I like it! And it makes me wonder if we won't see him needing to stand up for himself in the story.

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    3. Thanks! :) And there comes a point in the story where he does need to stand up for himself. -Miriam

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  3. *happy sigh* I love Little Women. Probably will continue to remain my favorite novel ever. My eleven year old sister's now reading the novel and *loving* it.

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    1. I love it too. I'm thinking I need to read it out loud to my daughter...

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  4. This post is spot on, both content and timing wise! I was recently talking with a writer/cousin of mine about introducing big families without confusing the reader. Part of her answer was to give each an individual characteristic, such as in Little Woman.

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    1. Nice! Yes, Louisa May Alcott does a very good job with this.

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  5. Alright, here's my main character (my WIP is in the fantasy genre BTW) ...

    Roxanne likes to think that she could stand trials on her own, but she never forgets that she's only alive because of others protecting her. She can almost always be found with the wolf that she bonded with, Avalon. Her thick, dark-brown hair falls to just below her shoulders, and her hazel, gold-flecked eyes are always bright with excitement. She is quick to make friends, and has many.

    That was fun! Thanks for the challenge, Mrs. Williamson :). ~Savannah P.

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    1. The wolf-bonding sounds neat and Roxanne seems like a fun character.

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    2. Thanks, Linea! I'm glad you like the wolf-bonding idea :).
      Oh! I forgot to mention, for those of you who are possibly confused, I am the Savannah who normally comments under Anna P.'s name. But I recently discovered the little button that says 'Anonymous' and decided it might be less confusing :D. ~Savannah P.

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    3. Good job, Savannah! I like that you mention she's only alive because others are protecting her, and then you mention the wolf, who is likely also protecting her. Perhaps she is going to have to do something on her own in the book at some point.

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  6. I need to read Little Women again now! Great post.

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  7. Another great post. Thank you!

    Shale was an anomaly, a boy with nowhere to fit in. Although the unruly mop of ebony hair marked him as a Man, his high, pallid cheekbones and slanted blue eyes marked him as a half-blood. He carried himself in a light, flitting manner, another face in the crowd...that is, until he shot you a cocky grin that meant you'd better check your money-bag.

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  8. Oooh.

    Mari couldn't have been older than fourteen, fifteen at most, but her actions made her seem older, almost as if she had seen too much too quickly. There was something about her eyes - a stormy, muddied green - which seemed constantly wary; a fox who had learnt early on not to trust a human.

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    1. Nice job, Lara. This makes me want to know more about her!

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  9. Thank you for another great post!

    Carina had the awkward gangly limbs of adolescence and the naive, no longer bright eyes of someone who has seen her world yet too little of it to forget hope. But the peacock strut to her stride and the grim set of chin told a different sort of story, cracking the illusion of innocence. She had seen too much.

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    1. Interesting, Kira. I like how her walk and posture tell me that she is a fighter.

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  10. Great post! Haven't read Little Women for AGES but I was in a production of it in High School!

    Guy Fulton Bursloff loved being a waiter, to trounce around in a suit, bowing and smiling politely at every frequent opportunity. His hair was such a mousy brown that really it was gray, and it hung on either side of his perfectly combed part. His jaw wasn't strong and his chin was nonexistent, so even when he stood tall and puffed his chest out, he was like an inverted triangle, starting wide and flat at the top and tapering ever downward.

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    1. Oh, I like this very much. Good job, Jessica. I'm curious to know more about Guy.

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  11. Sounds fun!

    Bright Star is a small filly with a smooth amber coat. Only the slim white diamond on her forehead, for which she was named for, would make her stand out in a herd of horses. Some would say she was naive, her innocent, young mind not yet scarred by the cruel world we live in. But, even yet, there is something special about the mind of a child, unafraid to face the future, to believe in the impossible. There is a power in that innocence, for, perhaps, believing is something adults lack - the power to hope, and dream, and even, perhaps, *change* the world we live in. The power to be bold, and hope.

    I guess that was more of a description of personality versus appearance, but hey! It works. I’m not really sure. . .feel free to give some advice or feedback. Thanks! :)

    ~Zoe

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    1. I think it's great, Zoe. You told us a lot about Bright Star. I feel like I know her, though I also feel a little worried, that the story might try to crush some of that innocence and hope. And I'm hoping she will survive it and not change, even if she grows wiser of the world's ways.

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    2. Thanks! :) I hope I can enhance and preserve her character throughout the story. Thanks for the comment! :)

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  12. Vali wasn't the tallest Aesir. He had quick grey eyes and dark brown hair that made him look more like his father then cared to admit. He wore a black obsidian sword pendant around his neck, Nemesis, sword of the shadowless. The quiver on his back was of fine workmanship, along with the bow and arrows and he was the finest archer in the nine realms, yet Vali had sworn to never fire an arrow again.

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    1. Very interesting, pgacn. I like the hints you dropped about not wanting to look like his father and never wanting to fire an arrow again. It makes me very curious to learn more about him. Good job!

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  13. Excellent timing with the Little Women thing. I am about to re-read it for our book club this month. :D

    This is a description of Larka, one of the three POV charatars in my fantasy WIP.

    Larka towered over everyone. To say she was tall would be like saying the desert sun was hot. She stood heads above all the women of Laerta, and most of the men too. In combat, she did not mind it so much. Her height gave her the advantage of intimidation, and her thick bones and muscular limbs gave her strength and damage resistance. But when she was not fighting or hunting, Larka's freakish height made her stick out like a giant sand dune piercing the sky. And with a face like hers, you did not want to stick out.
    She had a prominent, square jaw, a heavy brow hanging over beady green eyes, and a puffy white scar slicing her left cheek. All features that might look normal, even attractive on a man. But not so for her.
    Larka wished that the rest of her could be as pretty as her hair. Her hair swept gracefully down her back, brushing as far down as her hip bones. It was thick and straight and the color of the Laertan sands. In Larka's opinion, it was not only her best feature, it was her only good feature. It was the one thing that kept her from being completely unattractive, not completely hideous.

    This was a fun prompt! Needless to say, Larka has some self-image issues. :P

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    1. Poor, Larka! All this makes me want to know her, though, and too see her find confidence in who she is and people who will love her despite what she thinks are reasons not to. Good description, Kati.

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  14. This was a really fun exercise. This isn't very good, and is a little long. Sorry about that.

    Areli's tightly knit body and small stature, contrasted starkly with his people's characteristics. Pepins were brawny and tall. They were not slightly built with little muscle. He was a a disgrace to his family and the butt to jokes of all who knew him. His hair fell in sandy waves to his shoulders where he often ran his hand through it when he became confused or frustrated. His most notable feature was his sapphire eyes, which many would call strange.

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    1. Interesting, Elizabeth. I want to know if it is more than a coincidence that he is so different. And I want to see his differences become a value. It makes me want to read more about him. Good job!

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  15. Artemis had always worn her responsibility as the oldest, if only by a few moments, as an impossible weight upon her shoulders. Carrying it lead to a drawn mouth and shoulders which always gave her an intimidating appearance. She rarely smiled and when she did, it was only for her childlike hounds. Seeing her grinning with that pack of howling monsters never failed to scare off any suitors too dense to heed her fierce glare.

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    1. Nicely done! I love this. It's interesting, too, that the one place she is at peace and joy, still frightens some people away. She is a fascinating character!

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  16. Michelle Mason, or Ella, was used to fading into the background, at five-foot one, in the eight grade, she was often the silent shadow hunched over a book in the corner. Whether in the classroom, or in the lunchroom, she was there, quiet and completely absorbed in her novel, her short black hair half-covering her face. Only half living in this world, she often had the air of someone living the wold of magic and mystery.

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    1. Ooh, I think I know this girl! :-) Very nice, Alpha. I can see her, and I'm wondering what adventure is going to pull her out of her book.

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  17. In the corner of the galley stands Atarah, the petite damsel they have christened "Princess". Her hair hangs in a long, dark, braid down her back, emphasizing her delicate facial features. She holds her head high: despite the shackles on her feet, despite the royal servant's uniform, despite everything. Such is the girl known as Atarah.

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    1. This is intriguing. She is a princess in shackles and a servant's uniform. That alone raises so much curiosity that I want to know more. Well done!

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  18. Oh, so many beloved characters to pick from! Here's one from one of my WIP 'Reaper Town'.

    Reese was a quiet kid who didn't fit in anywhere. His brown hair and healthy-looking skin, courtesy of his human mother, made him stand out among the reapers. All the humans ever noticed were his filmy eyes, the unnatural agility with which he moved, and his non-existent shadow. Which, of course, were all the things the reapers didn't notice. Out of everyone in the town, Reese could only allow three people close to him: his mother, the reaper girl Elle, and the human Alf.

    That was so much fun. Here's one (or two) more, from my WIP 'Choices'.

    Ashton was the bouncy kid who never stopped asking questions. He looked like everyone else in his family, with caramel skin, dark eyes, and long, thin limbs, but his curiosity was endless. He was cautious about it, though--he had to be, to survive. No one could know what he was really like, for he knew that his family was above everyone else. Commoners should not know their kings.

    Cormin, being the older one, was allowed to sit back in the shadows and protect his brother. They would rule together, but also alone--that was how it always worked. The younger was the public image, carefully crafted. The elder was the real power, the one who held the reigns. It was for that reason that Cormin simply couldn't be as curious as Ashton; he was the one who would always be looking for people trying to stab the brothers in the back...and occasionally do the stabbing. He knew no one could be trusted.

    Whoa...that almost sounds like fantasy. It's supposed to be dystopian. oops!

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    1. Those are all very good, Lil. They do a great job of characterizing. I like how both the humans and the reapers only notice the anomalies in Reese. I also like Ashton's dangerous curiosity. Interesting play between Ashton and Cormin. Sounds like a cool story!

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  19. Hey Jill,

    I was wondering if you could do a post (or give some advice) on how to make characters with whom the audience can empathize. Recently I've realized that this is a subject that is very important to writing a compelling novel.

    Also, here's my character sketch from my WIP. It focuses on the face, rather than the whole character:

    Leo had secrets that he would rather remain untold. Even if someone could see beyond his side-swept red hair, there was a large chance that nobody would look too close to see them within his emerald green eyes.

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    1. Ooh, I like your description, especially the last part! :D


      Alexa
      thessalexa.blogspot.com
      verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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  20. Cool post! I haven't read Little Women in a long time, but I remember Beth being my favorite character. After reading this post, I remember why "living in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved" sounds so much like me, lol.

    And yay, cool prompt! Okay, here's mine: Elliot Sharpe was a boy of 14 with light brown skin and large dark eyes peeking out from layers of shaggy black hair. He was not large, but as he was always shrinking into himself, hiding from the world, he often seemed even smaller than his five-foot-two frame. Whenever possible, he eschewed reality and its human population, hiding his scars--both tangible and not--beneath layers of aloofness and, if one came close enough and was not bitten, cynicism.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

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  21. Winter hated mirrors. Not because she wasn't beautiful. No, Winter was exotic and gorgeous, with her dark skin, her large, intelligent eyes, and high cheekbones, her full lips and mane of beautiful jet-black hair. She was too beautiful, really. Mirrors reminded her of all the questions she had. Like why no one else looked the way she did. Why her ears curved up to a point. Why her ears and face were pierced. And more than anything, why her eyes were bright and alive, while everyone else's were dead. But there were never any answers. So she stopped looking.

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