Identifying features can be a good way to make a character memorable. They can set the tone for a scene or be an outward sign of inner character. They can inspire sympathy or fear, hint at a past or be a cause for misunderstanding.
He grinned at her in the shifting light provided by the swinging bulb overhead. The shadows danced over his skin and the scar on the left side of his face twisted his visage into something grotesque.
“Are we having fun yet?” he asked.
In that moment his scar could be something scary and menacing. I could continue in this vein or I could shift it.
Jessica smiled back, pleased that in the excitement of the moment Frank wasn’t tilting his face away from her, hiding the scar. Ever since the accident he tried to keep the left side of his face from the light.
The same identifying feature can help set the mood, and let the readers in on interaction beyond the framework of the story. Perhaps this plot is of Jessica and Frank uncovering a smuggling ring operating just outside of their small town. The plot may be about the duo searching out clues and tracking down leads, but there can be a story – or emotional journey – beyond that.
Maybe before this Frank was a model whose career was ruined by the accident and he is having to come to terms with his new life outside of modeling. Maybe Frank was thinking of asking Jessica out before the accident, but now no longer thinks she’d want him. Perhaps Jessica feels responsible for the accident or perhaps even a third party was killed in the accident and the death haunts them both.
There are a million different ways the details could go, all of which can help you build an emotional journey to go with your smuggling plot. And of course identifying features don’t have to scars. They can be dimples or two different colored eyes, tapping fingers or even height. All of the details can play a role in the perception of your main character to your readers, to the character themselves or to the other characters in the story.
If your main character is six foot four inches tall in a town where the tallest resident is five foot two inches, he is going to stand out, literally, and it is going to affect perception.
While identifying features can be used to assist you in adding depth to your story, they can be overused. If you have an ensemble cast of five characters and one has a scar, one has a limp, the third is missing an eye, the fourth lost two fingers off his left hand and the fifth has had his nose broken so many times that the bridge has a permanent kink in it then you really better tell us what happened to explain why everyone is showing evidence of physical trauma.
Not everyone in your story needs a limp and a scar.
Unless of course when people reach a certain age in the town you’ve created everyone has one knee smashed and a cut to the face as part of local tradition.
If so then go with it.
Just remember, if everyone in your story has some sort of identifying feature it might be hard for your reader to keep track of who is who.
Is John the guy with the scar or was that Mike?
No, Frank had the scar, Mike had the limp.
I thought Steve had the limp.
No Steve is missing two fingers off his left hand, John is missing one finger off his right hand and George only has one eye.
No, Nelson has only one eye and George has a lisp.
It can get confusing very quickly.
One of the pitfalls when using identifying features it that it is easy to slip into stereotypes. the Gangster with the scar. The ditzy blonde with big boobs. The dumb jock with massive muscles. The geeky computer guy with glasses always slipping down his nose.
There are a lot of stereotypes and when using identifying features it is easy to fall into the trap of using them. This doesn’t mean you can use characters who fall into these categories. Perhaps you need a character built like a lineman to do something stupid for just one scene to get the action moving. That’s fine, just know that it can fall into a stereotype and make it believable to the scene or find a way to break the stereotype.
The only thing that stood between them and escape was the knife wielding sidekick. Everyone else raced off at the sound of the alarm, but he held his post as though expecting an attack.
“Right,” Chet said. “I’ll rush him and the three of you get through the door.”
“That’s a stupid plan,” Angie hissed. “You’ll be hurt or even killed.”
“But it is our only way out,” Chet reminded her. “As long as I steer clear of the knife, I can take him. Just promise me that if I don’t make it out you won’t let any of the guys on the team know my scholarship was actually academic instead of athletic.”
Poor doomed Chet could also like opera or play chess. Whatever suits your story. And of course you could have Chet survive. It’s your story. In that scene, even though rushing a knife wielding sociopath isn’t the smartest option, it is their only avenue for escape, at least as it is currently written. Angie, the big busted blonde cheerleader, could come up with a plan B that doesn’t involve Chet rushing the opposition. It will depend on the situation. Then we will see if Chet is smart enough to take a better option or if he just wants to rush the bad guy.
Identifying characteristics can be a useful tool in building up an emotional story along with your plot. It can help you set your mood. It can also be overused and confusing as well as promoting stereotypes. It can also help you break stereotypes. Before you start writing in limps and scars (along with a host of other possible attributes) for your characters, think about who needs to be memorable and why. Think about how it helps your character interact with other characters and the world in which you placed them. Make certain there is a point to the identifying trait/feature that you give and that it has some bearing on your story. If there isn’t one, perhaps you might want to think about leaving it out.