Impressionism or Realism?

Rest Stop on the Writing Journey

The trail leading to “why this post?” about visualizing characters—is twisty and meandering…

Trail-head number 1: Connotation and denotation[i]. I’ve wanted for awhile to do a post about how much a writer can potentially convey just by choosing a word that conveys more than a fact—but also has an “aura.” I’ve called it in the past, choosing the most-loaded word. A bend in the road with an uphill rise—also love alliteration, and especially if combined with words that denote more than their definition–even when just an impression. Though, there needs to be a shared or recognizable background for those words to work. So I’m often finding myself, especially in re-write and draft-reviews, trying to finWinding Road Signd that “perfect” word that will conjure up a particular image in the reader’s mind. At a minimum when stuck, adding peripheral-props, like a style of dress, or a slump of the shoulders, type of build, a turn of the head or other unconscious character mannerisms–even the type of car the character drives; instead of skin color, exact features, type of hair, or how the character “looks” in a mirror. Hopefully you get my drift even though these aren’t great examples. A starting “impression” a reader can create a real character from using their past life encounters.

Trail-head number 2: At my/our latest book club meeting we discussed different kinds Book Club Clip Art 23916of electronic gadgets like Smartphones, Kindles, IPods, etc. From somewhere in that discussion, audio books came up and I spouted-off about how much I liked them and what narrators I liked listening to.[ii] On the way home I also thought further about what writers I listen to, and realized my favorites mostly go on-and-on-and-on describing the physical attributes of their characters.

On the side of the road during a curving twist, in editing my latest, The Movie-Maker, it was rightly pointed out to me there’s not a lot of physical descriptions of my characters, and several could be “fleshed-out” a little better.

So, I went back and flipped through my latest (something I seldom do because it’s too late to rewrite…), but I wanted to know what I actually do/did—versus what I like to read, and what I might want to change in future books. FBRTMMFront300dpi1200pixAnd yes—unfortunately or fortunately—depending on your writing-style perspective, a lot of visualizing my latest cast of characters is left up to the reader without lengthy descriptions from me. Nonetheless, that night I so enjoyed listening to my latest audio book, a very long-winded character description in Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds– brought to life by narrator Francis Matthews. I’m not sure if I saw the person(s) Margery wanted me to see, or if somehow, a key word(s) she used triggered in my memory a real person I’ve known or met? But Georgia Wells and others were very real. Hmmm. Dueling perspectives—even goals?

Bottom line I think, is creating identifiable characters—and by that I mean characters a reader can visualize in their mind’s eye, feel they know, and maybe even identify with—is QuestionMarkFaceneither easy, nor as linear as it at first might seem. The often given writing advice, “show not tell,” can definitely also be applied to character description–but it’s not the whole story either. I don’t think it’s easy—yet another writing goal ha! But an aspect of writing well worth being thought about when you’re doing that last draft. And asking the questions, “How will the reader picture XXXX in their mind’s eye? Have I given enough clues? Not enough description? Too much description?”

A side detour: (for a future post unless the road turns again)—the Hercule Poirot character I will always have in my brain is not the “person” I initially conjured-up from Agatha Christie’s realistic descriptions of the great detective in her books. No, it is David Suchet. Bringing up the question of what film actors and audio-readers bring to the character visualization table? And then there’s what picture a choice of a character’s name brings.

Happy writing trails! (even though sometimes circular, winding, and many times, an uphill climb.)

[i] Connotation – “An idea that is implied or suggested.”  Denotation – “The most direct or specific meaning of a word…”

[ii] Hugh Fraser and Patrick Malahide.







12 thoughts on “Impressionism or Realism?”

  1. I could listen to Hugh Fraser read a grocery list. His voice brings something to the character’s he’s reading, definitely. When Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin gives a description, it’s often fairly detailed, but it’s the little things like the way the character holds his or her head or the character’s attitude that really flesh it out in my imagination. Not the hair and eye color.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sooo agree about Hugh Fraser. Re-watching all the Poirot episodes (DVD) and even as a younger man, he had a great voice. Yes, agree character’s attitude is so important–and now as I’m typing adding character’s choice of words, which can remind me of someone I already know–helps me draw a picture in my head.


  2. I do think attitude defines a character every bit as much as a detailed description. I want the reader to do a little filling in the blanks because even if I describe a character down to their shoe size, I have had readers tell me the actor they think should play the character and the person was never the one I would have chosen. So I give them attitude and hope it stirs something in the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, I’m guessing my “pictures” of Johnny Casino and Chance McCoy (two of my all time favorite characters) may not look like the protagonists you saw, but I had starting pictures of both these characters when I first heard their names! And their attitudes–you’re so right, very defining.


  3. Great post, MM. I heartily agree that description must go beyond the physical, especially in primary and recurring characters. I love it when reading allows me to break through that ‘fourth wall’ and enter the story, walk alongside the characters, and nothing is more flattering than to hear readers say the same about my novels.

    I used to listen to books on tape when I commuted between home and office, including a popular series of mysteries that were read by several actresses. Most did a fine job, but one, Joan Allen, was spectacular. She managed to convey the characters and situations without using accents or deepening her voice for the male characters, yet she brought out the nuances in the story more effectively that way. A good reader adds so much to the experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Miko. I think there’s a real and very special talent in “reading” an audio book. And you’re so right, once you’re actually “with” a character, the reading experience is so much improved. I must say, I also like it when minor characters are also well developed, and not as I call them, “throw-aways.”


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Patricia. I value your input because I know what a good writer you are (and a friend!), so when your input is such kind words, I’m very, very pleased! The thing with me, that I can’t get away from, Patricia, is that I’m never “there.” I read something, appreciate it…and sometimes even wish I’d written it. So there’s always the comparing and trying to make it better–and producing more. Right now, feel like a slug on the production end. When I read characters I can see, understand, would want as a neighbor–like Marnie! I know what good characters and their visualization can do for a story. By the way, your novels have actually been a mental impetus to make Rhodes more like a series.


  4. I really enjoyed this post. I always have a vision of my characters in my mind, and then attempt not only to describe them in what I write but also let them describe themselves by their actions and words. But if my readers see or hear them differently, that’s okay too as long as whoever they’re visualizing fits their role in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a very good point, Linda, about even if a reader sees a character differently than I’m thinking, as long as they fit in the story, it’s okay. Actually, quite good. Thanks for an added perspective on reader enjoyment of characters…


  5. Since I am always confusing connotation and denotation, I thank you for clarifying the definitions. It seems the modern trend is to NOT provide detailed physical descriptions of characters, but, as you rightly point out, to give the reader an impression and let it play out from there. I find that a lot more engaging than pages of commentary about bone structure and eye color.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always confusing them too, Bonnie, and always have to look them up, though I understand what both mean, forget which word refers to which! Glad to know I’m actually with the trend for once. Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: