Giving Your Characters More Than A Reference Name

Frantic is a word I would use to describe the past few weeks. I’ve been visiting blogs and reading  but not writing much. Babysitting has become a large part of my activities as mama organizes, plans and nests in preparation for the third grandchild.

In my spare moments, I am reading, everything. Lots of classics, new authors, traditionally published and indie.

I have a complaint. It may just be me, but I’m put off by so many of the new and indie authors using popular references to TV and music personalities in their novels. I read, but don’t watch a lot of TV and I don’t have many visual images of recording artists. When I read, I want the author to create imagery for me. This seems to be trendy and I don’t care for it at all.

I can see saying, “He looked like George Costanza, a short, balding man with dark hair surrounding a balding head and nerdy glasses.” But to simply say, “He looked like George Costanza,” and move on…well, I just don’t like it.

I may know the character, but not the actor’s names. I don’t want to have to google every character in a book I’m reading in order to get an image. Give me some sort of description. If I said, “She was Phyllis Diller’s twin,” it might be lost on some (especially the young). But if I said, “She was a Phyllis Diller look alike, a tall woman wearing loud, brightly colored clothing with wide eyes and wild, gray, spiked hair, a gaping smile of pearly white teeth.” You have some clue, a description to imagine in your mind.

If I say, “He looked like Mr. T,” there should be some follow up to say, “A large, muscular black man sporting a mohawk with four pounds of gold chains around his neck.”  Likewise, if you say, “He looked just like rapper Lil B,” give me some clue as to what Lil B looks like…else I’m setting your book down…especially if you do that repeatedly.

There were several indie books I’ve read that I can’t recommend because they were filled with names of TV, movie, and music personalities with no descriptions. It’s just lazy writing, in my opinion.

Speaking of descriptions; I’m going to need to change author photo soon. I had a whim I acted on with no regret. I whacked off my long blonde hair…all of it. I went really short, from down my back to above my ears pixie, from blonde to natural silvery gray. I love it. I can actually shower, comb, dry, style my hair, apply make-up and dress in less than ten minutes. I only wish I did this sooner. It’s a great boating, swimming, Florida summer cut.

Does it hamper your reading pleasure to see names with no descriptions in novels?

What are you doing to get ready for summer?

63 thoughts on “Giving Your Characters More Than A Reference Name

    • Thanks! Exactly! Some of the popular references I don’t even recognize now, much less will I know who they were in twenty years…just not iconic enough. It’s not Elvis or Marilyn Monroe we’re talking about, but often obscure references.

    • Thanks! I was just over it. The tangles after a shower, a dip in the pool, a boat ride. Even with my hair pulled back into a ponytail, there was a matted mess to contend with. NO MORE!

  1. Names without descriptions does irk me, but I don’t see it often. I’m guessing people that forget to describe assume that ‘everyone’ knows the person they’re referring too. Might stem from being a big fan and not realizing there are people who aren’t into the same things. Love the new hairstyle.

    • Thanks Charles. I picked a lot of these books up off Facebook recs and I am seeing more and more of it. I hate to sound like a grumpy old person, but it is often very young authors doing this. The culture is a bit different. They assume everybody knows who they know. My lord…there are more than three hundred TV channels now. Who can watch them all? Never mind all the popular recording artists. I’d have to be on You Tube 24/7 to see them all.

      • To be fair most of those 300 channels have nothing on them. I wonder if this is something that happens with every generation. We become more aware of it as we get older and are no longer interested in the new stuff. Then again, I’d have no idea since I tend to stick to fantasy where it doesn’t really happen.

  2. You make a great point. I’ve been reading speculative stuff lately, so haven’t personally stumbled across that. Pointing it out makes for a great post.

    That was a dramatic change up. It looks great, and with all the boating and outside fun you have it probably is much handier.

    • I’m not calling out any authors or naming any titles, but I’m seeing it a lot in debut books by young authors. I hate when I spend money on a book, though, and feel practiced on. :/

      I’m loving this cut. It makes me happy 🙂

  3. I love the new look! I’m growing mine back… but as it spreads wider than it hangs, how long that will last is anyone’s guess 🙂
    I agree with you on the media name dropping front. The odd reference, fair enough…though as i don’t watch TV or listen to the radio much most of it is lost on me. But surely that must date a book more than anything… ten years from now who will remember todays one-hit wonders or the current sit-com or (even worse) reality TV show?

    • So true. If it’s a historical novel, I can see dropping a few iconic names, but to riddle it with virtual unknowns isn’t working for me. I seriously don’t know one rap artist from another and wouldn’t expect a young person to be able to visualize Pink Floyd’s David Gilmore either…even though I thought he was a handsome blonde. Or even Micky Dolenz from the Monkeys…although every American teenage girl in the seventies knew who he was.

  4. First of all, your hair looks fantastic! I envy you the bravery of going for it. I’ve had long hair for so long, but I moan and groan every time I have to wash and blow dry it. How liberating just to do a quick shampoo and fluff.

    Secondly, I’m with you on the description. In fact, many writing experts suggest not comparing our characters to actors at all–it’s a cop out of sorts. Not to mention, pop culture constantly changes, and as you point out, not everyone will be familiar with the celebrities referenced.

  5. Like the new look – it focuses on your pretty eyes. “Short” is a good way to prepare for new grandmother-hood.

    References to pop culture don’t bother me. If I care enough about a character that seems blurry to me, I would look it up. Actually, I don’t read much fiction, so it’s not much of a problem. Yes, I do know George Costanza is from Seinfeld.

    • It is!

      I have looked up a character, particularly if it was just one and a feature character in the book. But I have read some with so many pop references that the authors actually footnoted all of the references and that was terribly distracting to the read. If you are aware that your references need to be footnoted, why not simply give better descriptions?

  6. Great new hair style! My hair is as long as yours was, and ever now and then I have the desire to go really short, but I’m petrified of taking the plunge. Maybe one of these days. For now, when I get frustrated with the length I pull it up or tie it back in a pony tail.

    Regarding trendy names in books…I haven’t come across that yet, but I do agree it would be annoying if you did know who the character was. So much better to give the reader an actual description than something that won’t have any relevance in a few years. Great post!

    • The pony tails even got to me after boating they would be knots. I’m trying to read a bit of everything without being too picky, but some of what I’m finding on the web is , well, just not right.

  7. I like your hair. I agree with the lack of description in books. No excuse for using someone else as a model when describing a character. I take the view that the reader needs to imagine the character and when you put a TV character in there it is not the same.

    • In a historical book, I think it helps set the place and time, but not as a reference to character. Saying a guy looked like Grant doesn’t tell me anything about his appearance.

  8. Agree with you on the references. How can a book stand the test of time if not everyone will know who you are talking about? Besides that, you’re right about it being lazy writing; as a writer, it’s your job to show!!

    Love your haircut :-). Think I might need to use the new pic for your author intro on my site ;-).

  9. I haven’t noticed it, but it would bother me if a book had several references to people I don’t know. I’m certainly not up on current music or TV “celebrities.” I’ve sometimes seen references to people or items (types of food or brandnames) that I don’t know in books written by non-US authors. Those are things I find kind of interesting, rather than distracting though. As you said, if someone wants to use such a comparison, it’s easy enough to add an additional sentence or phrase to gloss it.

    Your new haircut is so cute! I love it! I’m sure you’re enjoying the ease of your wash-and-go hair now with your swimming and boating.

    • It doesn’t bother me so much unless a book is just riddled with them. Yeah, I’m loving the wash-and-go. We’re going boating today and I’m not dreading the return.

  10. This is a good point. I also get annoyed when authors insert musical references that I have never heard of. I’m know I’m guilty of it too. I suppose writers should describe the music after they mention it in the same way.

    Your haircut looks so liberating. I only keep mine for The Husband.

  11. Great look, Susan! I did the same a few months ago: long, long hair, so I got it cut. I saved the hank for prosperity, since I may not grow it long again. … I agree that writers need to expound better if they use public figures or products. I haven’t watched television or current movies in years, and when I read names I don’t have a clue about, my interest in the piece goes out the window. I really don’t want to send most of my time researching names over reading the piece. Thanks for writing about this, one of my pet peeves. 🙂

  12. I agree with you there, this kind of writing really annoys the hell out of me. Even if I am familiar with the references that they use, I still don’t like it.

    Also, it’s not a good practice. Readers may perceive that the authors who do this are just lazy.

    • It seems to be occurring much more frequently lately and it’s not all indie authors. Many traditional authors are doing it. I’m surprised it doesn’t get edited. It certainly dates your piece.

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