I posted about being in the same room with a serial killer–and knowing he was one when I represented him as a lawyer. As a writer, you’d think this kind of experience would give me a lot of raw material from which to create characters. Of course it does but…
Trying to convey to readers that experience through the use of my words is tougher than it may seem. On the one hand, I could simply “take a photo” and give the reader a detailed description of what I saw. It might sound like this: “He had thin blonde hair combed over his head, green eyes, a long sloping nose with wide nostrils. Two ears on either side of his head framed a mouth in the middle with thick lips…”
Kind of boring.
So, my job becomes one of distilling all the sensory data I received into a few words that will convey something about the person in front of me. It’s more than a photo because as a human, I have a reaction to the meeting while a camera doesn’t. That gives me an opportunity to filter or expand certain impressions as they affected me. One of the questions I often get about representing criminals is, “What’s he really like?”
A photographic description would tell one story about what they’re like but the person asking wants more. They want to know, through my interpretation as another human, what is he like.
As a writer, I have to pick certain details about the killer and tell these to the reader. The trick is to pick just a few that together, convey a feeling or impression that I’ve received by being present with the person. Because I don’t have pages to go on and on describing the character, I have to choose the details carefully and not include too many.
Let’s say I want to convey the distrust/nervousness the killer feels about everything. Maybe I’d write: “Low brows hooded green eyes that darted between me and and the door of the room. The fingers on his left hand squeezed together and tapped on the table while I told him of my qualifications as a lawyer. He was missing the ring finger on that hand.” Okay…not great but you notice how I left out most of everything about his physical appearance. Why? It’s really not important nor does it help to give any sense of the character’s inner feelings.
As readers, none of us want to be introduced to a character like reading an encyclopedia. Our own brains are fully capable of filling-in the picture of a character an author is drawing.
The process reminds me (never actually been there myself) of an LSD trip–a few drops will explode into the brain, creating unexpected colors, sounds, and sensations. My job as a writer is to take a few drops of detail from the killer sitting before me and deposit those in the brain of the reader. If I’m doing my job well and the magic is working, the reader will supply the necessary details and fill-in what I’ve left out. Through their imagination they’ll create a character far better than I ever could as a writer.