The character chart. We’ve all seen them. Height, weight, eye color, hair color, hair style, length, body type. Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop adventure games include strength factors, typical weapons carried, experience points, and more. A writer could end up down a serious rabbit hole ruminating to complete one.
But when it comes to the writing, relativism is better than exact figures. Take this example:
Marcus, 34, was a 6-foot 4-inch powerhouse. The former college swimmer with jet black locks that curled against his cheeks still had the same tapered 20-inch waist and 7-foot armspan that earned him a National title in college swimming ten years ago. It didn’t look like he’d gained an ounce over his weigh-in weight of 231 for the 2012 National Championships. Piercing blue eyes, set above an aquiline nose, swept through the room and his generous full lips curled up in a genuine smile when he spotted her.
Aside from “how is it our point of view character knows his NCAA weigh-in weight?” how much of this really gave you a physical picture of Marcus that shows who he is as a person? The way she sizes him up, he might as well be a piece of meat. Now, if that’s the attitude she has of him, maybe that’s fine, but generally speaking, it’s not the way a person looks at another person.
How does a 6-foot-4 man move? If you know one, maybe you’ve got an idea. If your reader doesn’t though? how have you helped them really see this guy?
This is where relativism comes in. If you give the reader other people and things to compare a person’s appearance to, they’ll get a much better mental image of Marcus that can also reveal something of his character.
In order to do that, you have to know other things about the space. A typical room’s ceiling is 8 feet high, so he’s roughly 1.5 feet shorter than that. A typical doorway is just 7 feet high. If he’s wearing a hat with any height, he might need to duck, or the hat will be knocked off. A 7-foot armspan means that his arms outstretched covers that distance. Shoulder to shoulder most people are half that, so his chest – that swimmer’s chest, is about 3 feet across, with another 3-4 inches on either side for his shoulders. A typical doorway is 3.5 feet wide. He’ll actually have to turn slightly to enter the room through a typical doorway or he’ll get caught on the jamb or door knob. How can you show this?
Maybe he has to step back to let another man out of the room. Now you have a comparison point too. 6-foot-4 is above average for an adult male. What if we write that the man he lets pass, an older gentleman, his head was even with Marcus’s shoulder? And on top of that, you’ve gotten Marcus’s personality. He may be a big guy, but he’s a big guy with a kind heart letting an old man exit before entering the room himself.
So let’s try that description again:
A small commotion by the doorway drew her gaze. Marcus smiled benevolently at the older man leaving the room just as he was entering. The man’s gray hair brushed Marcus’s chin and he backed up further, his own dark locks shifting against his cheeks. “Excuse me.” She could hear his warm tone even across the room. God, he was still as stunning as she remembered from the swimming nationals ten years ago. He tucked a hand at his own narrow waist to hold his jacket closed and turned forward after passing through the doorway to the living room. His blue eyes swept around the people crowding the space and his full lips quirked up when he spotted her.
There’s more to characterization than the physical, of course. If you’re looking for a resource to help with those parts of character building, check out these pages: