Let’s do an experiment.
When I say “red hair in braided pigtails” what comes to mind? Is there a character you associate that with? Are there several? If I add in a love for “The Lady of Shalott,” does that bring a clearer focus?
Or what if I change that to say that this character has a monkey sidekick and sleeps with her feet on her pillow?
Let’s try again. Shaggy brown hair, green eyes, clothes that are gray and several sizes too big. Add in a lightning shaped scar, and everyone knows who this character is, without any additional context.
Let’s go away from physical descriptions and simply add titles. If I say this character is a billionaire, that narrows things down. Genius? Philanthropist? Playboy? (Technically if you didn’t know the movie/quote you could still assign these traits to at least two superhero billionaires.)
If we want to narrow it down we could look at the characters actions. Both are superheroes, but one repeatedly risked his life for the good of the Earth, and eventually did give up his life for his friends and loved ones. The other is a vigilante who protects a city that haunts him and also sacrifices himself depending on the version.
Last try. Insanely clever, socially inept, keen eye for detail, a bit cold and calculating, logical to a fault, enjoys disguises, moody, untidy, and an addict.
Writers use many techniques to establish their characters from descriptions, to personality traits, to titles. Some may choose to simply show their characters through their dialog or point of view. But in any case, characters start to be seen through labels. The more labels we have for a character, the clearer our concept of them. It’s what makes these characters recognizable even out of context. It is also one of the reasons why movie adaptations can be tricky, as fans will be quick to criticize things that aren’t accurate to the book, even if some of their critiques come from their own imagined version of the character.
An author can choose to avoid using descriptions and allow the reader to fill in the gaps. When I most recently attended the LTUE (Life the Universe and Everything) conference, Fablehaven by Brandon Mull was mentioned at several panels as not having descriptions at all for the main characters. That allows the reader to fill in details where they want (although Mull has elaborated on their descriptions, and illustrators have depicted the Kendra and Seth before).
What I find fascinating about this whole process is the human tendency to label things. The chair is red, the dog is big, that particular human being is my best friend. All descriptors. Humans in real life, as well as fiction, use labels and identifiers to keep track of the world around them.
Think about a person that you are close to. Try to imagine every facet of them. Come up with all the labels that you can for them. Occupation, family, personality traits and quirks, political leanings, race, nationality, gender, the list goes on and on.
And now I want you to think about who they are. Are any of those pieces, them? Even if you put all of them together, is that what makes up that person? Is that their identity?
In pursuing the career of an author and in my personal life, I’ve had to look deeply at who I am as a person, and figure out all of my identifiers. It’s important for a business where I am essentially the face of it. My logo is a lotus flower that resembles the pages of a book because I believe that beauty can come from darkness. Lotuses grow from mud and symbolize rebirth. My past has darkness in it, but I want to move past that and make the world a more beautiful place. But does this define me? Is that who I am?
There’s a story that is told at my work (The Christa McAuliffe Space Center) about a group of people known as the Voiyants. They are a group of telepaths, and they don’t use names to describe people, mostly because if they want to address someone they can communicate directly with their essence. When it comes down to it, each of us is more than our identifiers. We don’t need labels to be who we are. Our identity is abstract. It isn’t tangible. But those who are closest to us know who we are, even if sometimes we don’t. We aren’t defined by our actions or our words. We aren’t defined by the clothes that we wear or the color of our skin. We are defined by who we truly are; an individual free of labels and judgement. The rest is trappings that help others to identify us.