Describing a Character the Easy Way

The tendency today is for authors to keep character descriptions in a novel short and focused by using brand names, and some books on writing recommend doing so. Obviously, a character who wears named designer suits or dresses is different from one who wears discount store clothing. And a character who eats a certain boxed cereal is different from one who eats plain old oatmeal. (Another recommendation is to describe characters by comparing them to celebrities, which, in a way, is the same thing — a celebrity is a name brand person.)

Most readers, perhaps, can more easily identify with a character who uses the same brands they do, and such descriptions give the book immediacy, but it seems to me like blatant advertising. Brand names have so encroached on our lives that we no longer realize we’ve become walking billboards. Even worse, we pay for the privilege of donating our personal space to the major corporations for free advertising.

But that doesn’t mean I have to embrace the trend in my writing. Sometimes there is no getting around a brand name. Saying a character put a Band-Aid on a cut has a completely different connotation than saying the character put a bandage on the cut. (For me, bandage summons a vision of gauze wrapped around an arm with the ends tied in a knot.) And I once used the phrase “Popsicle colors” to describe northern Wisconsin in the autumn. (If you’ve ever been there when the leaves are changing color, you will know how apt that description is.) Outside of that, I don’t think I’ve ever used brand names.

So, like writers of fantasy, science fiction and historical novels, I have to fall back on the old-fashioned way of describing and defining a character — by the colors they prefer, the style of clothing they wear and, most importantly, their actions. In the end, these descriptions are more enduring than brand names. Brand names, however entrenched, do become defunct, which would make our books passé, and us along with it. This perhaps defeats the purpose of writing. After all, don’t we all harbor the unrealistic dream of future generations reading our immortal works?

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