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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Knowing about the main character

   
Author Topic: Knowing about the main character
tchernabyelo
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This is a spin-off of the thread about the revealing (or not) of the MC's gender, which got me to thinking.


What do people (as readers) feel they need to know about th eMC, and why?

I'll throw out the following for starters:
Gender
Ethnicity
Nationality/cultural identification
Social class/status
Physical appearance

Which of these do you feel you want to know about an MC/protag/narrator, and why? And which do you not care about - and again, why?


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Grayson Morris
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I don't care anything about the MC's physical appearance, social status, nationality, or ethnicity unless they relate to the story in some meaningful way. In fact, being told these things when they don't move the plot forward really irritates me. "She tossed her waist-length, flame-colored tresses as she crossed the room." Gack.

Gender is harder for me to answer. I can't recall a story where I wasn't sure of a character's gender, so I don't know if it would bother me not to know (assuming the gender doesn't affect the plot). Obviously this only applies to first-person stories; third person requires the use of gender-specific pronouns, and second person, well, that makes the MC me, and I know my gender. (I'm a woman, by the way, for those of you assuming I'm a man from my name.)

I can imagine reading a story set in a universe where the sentient humanoid lifeforms don't have sexes, or have six sexes, or whatever, and being fine with that, so I think gender doesn't matter to me, either - again, as long as it isn't important to the story, and as long as the writer doesn't pull a "you thought it was this way, but it's that way, ain't I clever for fooling you so!" on me.

In fact, I think that's the key element - whatever's important to the story is revealed in a timely fashion, and whatever isn't, isn't.


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sojoyful
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None of it matters unless it's necessary to understand the story. Period. Anything else is either an enriching bonus (if it's done well) or distracting filler (if it's not).

I try to avoid using outer descriptions to reflect inner character. For example, just because someone has flint-colored eyes shouldn't automatically mark them as a hard soul. I think that's cheating. After all, in real life some bad guys like to wear white, and "waist-length, flame-colored tresses" do not the vixen make. I prefer to characterize through thought and action.

And I agree with Grayson Morris: deliberate character descriptions for their own sake drive me up the wall. However, I have noticed that some people really like to be able to picture the character they are following, and so they want the visual. I think it's reader preference, and since you can't please everyone, you should just write to please yourself.


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redux
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The only characteristics, physical, social, etc. that I need to know about the MC are only those that are relevant to the plot. The exception is if I am reading a paperback romance in which case I will accept fiery tresses being tousled since it goes with the territory.

I dislike being given a laundry-list of details since more often than not I find it distracting and it just feels like filler. By all means, however, drop in how a character had hellfire green eyes if he's some sort of warlock, or if the silver-spoon man turned to embezzlement to further secure his position on the social ladder. That's when the details are important and worth mentioning.


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Crank
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quote:
can imagine reading a story set in a universe where the sentient humanoid lifeforms don't have sexes, or have six sexes, or whatever, and being fine with that

One of the races I created for my science fiction world are essentially asexual, and I was imagining that my readers would quickly get annoyed with my using the pronoun ‘it’ all the time (and I was getting annoyed at adding the character’s name all the time to avoid using ‘it’ so often). I solved (or, so I think) that problem by creating a new pronoun. If the new pronoun itself is annoying, nobody has said so.


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KayTi
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The book MOTE IN GOD'S EYE deals with an alien race that actually morphs through several different gender states over time. Really interesting thing, how the authors handled it, since to the alien people, this was just how things worked (and they either actively hid some details of their gender workings, or they didn't think to mention it.)

I find gender important, and I'm one of those people who *REALLY* insists upon a name for the main character. As I said in a previous thread, I strongly prefer a name, even if done in a contrived way.

I feel a lot less specific about physical appearance and ethnicity, but I definitely default to assuming the character is like me unless told otherwise, so I find it jarring to discover in the fourth chapter that the character is of Jamaican descent, which I am not.

I think life station/social status is one of those things that we're not aware of conveying, but for a satisfying story is well conveyed early in the story so that the reader understands what's at stake, where this person is in the local hierarchy. It's one of the things that makes reading stories about far-off alien worlds annoying to me because so much of this has to be explained in the context of the culture, and as much as I like sci-fi, I don't much like alien stuff for this reason (oh, and because most authors/hollywood producers seem to think alien = bug-like. Gross.)


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Some people are more "visual" than others and are probably the ones who would like to have more description of the characters.

Speaking for myself, I'm not that interested in description for its own sake whether it's about characters or setting. So put my vote with those who say only include what is necessary.

I would like to add a suggestion that for those writing from a particular point of view (even if that changes through the story from one character to another to another), it might be good to consider only including what the current point of view character actually notices in a scene. Such an approach may help you keep what you describe more relevant to the story.


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Meredith
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Hmm. Well, I agree and disagree, both.

For myself, I'll agree that I really only need what's pertinent to the story. BUT if it's going to be important to the story, I need it pretty close to the beginning. It's disorienting to picture the protagonist one way and then two-thirds of the way through have to re-imagine the character.

However, I know some readers who want to truly be able to visualize the character and setting right from the start and aren't happy without some kind of description. They don't care that it's tricky to do in first person or close third POV. They want something they can picture.


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Amanda1199
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I prefer character description that is relative to why I would care about the character in the first place. If the MC's need is established, and that requires physical traits, then those traits could strengthen my reasons for caring about what happens to the MC.
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sojoyful
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quote:
it might be good to consider only including what the current point of view character actually notices in a scene.
Excellent point, Kathleen. A character is not likely to be thinking, "I have waist-length, flame-colored tresses," so if the narrative is in that character's POV, it wouldn't be appropriate. (Thanks to Grayson Morris for this piece of description that I am now going to use over and over.)

quote:
For myself, I'll agree that I really only need what's pertinent to the story. BUT if it's going to be important to the story, I need it pretty close to the beginning. It's disorienting to picture the protagonist one way and then two-thirds of the way through have to re-imagine the character.
Hear, hear! Good point.

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philocinemas
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It does not bother me either way. If a writer gives a description then that's fine, and it is equally fine if he/she does not. I would agree with those before (and presumably after) me that if a description is given, then it should be early in the story. Otherwise, it becomes jarring if the reader has already formulated an image of that character.

I do believe that there are times when physical description is important to the story. If someone is muscular/weak, tall/short, attractive/unattractive, etc., then it puts certain expectations upon the character and allows the author to use these expectations to either go with or against type.


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Grayson Morris
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Well, hey, I'm just delighted that *some piece* of my writing will stick in someone's mind forever. ;-)
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InarticulateBabbler
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I'll exstrapolate on Kathleen's point:

quote:

I would like to add a suggestion that for those writing from a particular point of view (even if that changes through the story from one character to another to another), it might be good to consider only including what the current point of view character actually notices in a scene.

Not only is what they see relevant, but how they see it. I've found it interesting in what I've been reading lately that each character may perceive a bull standing behind a wagon differently. To one it is a farm animal, all but broken in spirit; to another the beast is a potential hazard stuck in traffic so; to yet another, it is a barely contained nightmare. The first may see it shake the wagon with a lift of its head and see it testing its boundaries; the next might see it as an agitated beast, worrying at its tether; the last as wild eyed and demonic, weakening the leather strap binding its nose-ring to the wagon bed and deciding whether the ring or its nose would give first.


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Grayson Morris
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In a more prosaic counterpart to InarticulateBabbler's evocative example, my recent first-person story had the MC walking, with another character hustling along behind her, spilling his coffee as he tried to keep up.

Except the MC could never have noticed that, of course. So now the man is hustling along *beside* her, spilling his coffee.


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InarticulateBabbler
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A belated answer to Tchern's question:

I feel different stories call for different elements to be prominent in different ways.

Generally, and there are many exceptions, I like to see:

  • The name of the protagonist--whether it's in narrative or a comment--fairly soon.
  • I like also to know gender. Most of the time, the way a person is perceived is gender-specific, so I don't like to be surprised to find out a character is gay or something. I feel it would be cheating me.
  • Ethnicity is only an issue when prejudice will be later called into play. Again, a well written character will give some clue to this naturally.
  • Nationality only matters when there are contrasts, sources of tension, for me.
  • Cultural Identification I feel is a separate issue. I couldn't NOT culturally identify myself. Whether by class, race, creed or education, there will have to be evidence of this in the character's speech, thoughts, motivation or perception.
  • Social Class/Status, I feel will also have to be shown...unless the entire story only has one.
  • Physical Appearance could be illustration like all exposition, meted out when relevant, as opposed to a few paragraphs or a page that steps out of PoV.
  • Education/Intelligence (My add) is valuable for illustrating what challenges or character growth will have to be overcome.

An interesting quote from James D. MacDonald:

quote:
In a science fiction novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will use this to figure out the level of technology in the society.

In a mystery novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand that one of those objects is a clue.

In a literary novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand it to be a metaphor for the protagonist's mental state.



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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Great quote, InarticulateBabbler. Thanks. (I love stuff like that.)

On the "how" the point of view character sees things, this can be used in characterization. A happy person is going to perceive a scene in a very different way from how a depressed person would perceive it. Those were great examples.

When I used to teach a writing class, I tried to give an assignment in which I asked the students to write two paragraphs of description of the same object or scene. They were supposed to use the description to tell the reader how the point of view character was feeling without ever mentioning the point of view character (I believe I got this exercise from John Gardner).

They never seemed to understand my instructions and always included the character, as in "Mike hated the sight of the car" instead of something like "the car crouched there in the driveway, daring anyone to get into it, its grill like gritted teeth" and so on.

Maybe we should have a description challenge one of these days.


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snapper
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Here is a general answer to all items on your list.

Yes, if it's relevant to the story.

I have read a story in Fantasy magazine done in first person and never discovered what the MC's name, description, or even sex was. Didn't like the story but the editor did.

It all depends on whether it matters to the story you are telling. You could conceivably write a piece where not one of the items on your list is satisfied.

Hmmm, might make an interesting challenge.


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walexander
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I believe it's a testament to good writing if an author can get the details in without making it seem like a shopping list.

Yes please - I would like 1 black top, 1 pair of blue jeans, 2 pink socks, 1 pair white tennis shoes, and can I also have some long flowing blond hair, a pair of blue eyes, tan skin, and a look trouble on the side. Yah, this doesn't work for me. In writing at least.

As long as I can get the basic idea and have no major changes in two seconds - I'm usually happy, but I do admire an author who can visually give you the picture without you really even noticing.

I always liked Tolkien, but some of the detail on every little thing tended to make me sleepy sometimes. I'm a fan of detail, but not to much detail.

The other thing I hate is when its obvious the author sent a character down a path that seems opposite to their nature. This happens a lot in tv to keep series going and kind of drives me nuts. The fastest way to lose me as a reader or watcher is to have main characters do something uncharacteristic without a darn good reason.

W.


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MAP
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quote:
Gender
Ethnicity
Nationality/cultural identification
Social class/status
Physical appearance

Honestly I'd like to know all of these. All of these including physical appearance give insights into the character (how they dress, if they take care of themselves (clean shaven or straggly), etc.).

If I read an entire novel and I didn't know these things about the main characters, I would be annoyed.

Short stories are different. The author has to be a lot more conservative with details. I understand that not all stories are character focused (but those are the ones I most enjoy), so answering all of these is not necessary. It really depends on what the writer is trying to do.

I think it is interesting how many people here say they only like to know what is important to the plot. Every story can be stripped down to bare bones, but then the story feels hollow to me. Details are what make the story come alive IMO.

The right specific details are important to enrich a story. They need to be carefully chosen and placed in the story, but when done right they make the story believable and memorable. And I agree completely with KDW that these details need to be filtered through the POV.

My point is that just because these details aren't important to the plot doesn't mean they don't add depth to the character and the story.

I don't like lengthy descriptions or laundry lists of physical descriptions and characteristics, but also don't like a blank canvas either. I like a few specific details of the characters and setting to ground me and help me visualize the story.


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philocinemas
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Kathleen, not to get off track, but when I have tried to use metaphors or personification with readers of speculative fiction, the readers have often come back confused, thinking that the object or creature was actually behaving in the way I described.

Now that I have said that, let me try to get this comment back on the track by stating that I agree there are lots of ways to create physical description without describing the character.


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Osiris
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I agree with the general consensus that if those details matter to the story, include them. If they don't, and include just a few in a subtle way, if at all. Just don't give laundry lists of details all at once.

I like to give names of characters because they can convey a lot of information. If you name a character Suresh, you've conveyed a general sense of ethnicity, gender, nationality in a single word. Some names even convey religion. Once you've done that, I am happy to let the reader imagine what the character looks like. I'd say physical details are usually the least important to convey, unless its important to the story.

[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited November 02, 2010).]


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philocinemas
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Here is the first 13 from one of my favorite more recent novels. It is from The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. It won the Nebula and Hugo awards for 2007 and 2008 respectively. I love how Chabon used verbs to create mental images of these characters.

quote:
Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now Somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emmanuel Lasker.
“He didn’t answer the phone, he wouldn’t open his door,” says Tenenboym the night manager when he comes to roust Landsman. Landsman lives in 505, with a view of the neon sign on the hotel across Max Nordau Street. That one is called the Blackpool, a word that figures in Landsman’s nightmares. “I had to let myself into his room.”
The night manager is a former U.S. Marine who kicked a heroin habit of his own back in the sixties, after coming home from the shambles of the Cuban war. He takes a motherly interest


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philocinemas
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BTW, I believe all of IB's descriptive characteristics are answered in this opening without actually describing them, except for the word "yid".
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Robert Nowall
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Couldn't get past Chabon's use of present tense, found the idea compelling but the book unreadable...

I've found it difficult to define ethnicity in relation to the contemporary surroundings of [human] characters who are often doing their thing thousands of years in the future---both the notion of what we know now will almost certainly evolve, and the notion that characters in the future would not use or understand ethnic terms of the past.

Even in real life, this can rise up and bite me. I remember a writeup in the late 1970s about a Hollywood casting director who didn't know what was meant when it was said somebody was "Black Irish." Now, I was a callow youth in those days, and it took me awhile to figure out what it meant myself. (I did, once some examples were pointed out to me.) The casting director, I read, had ideas that the phrase applied to a certain other ethnic group...


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shimiqua
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Gender
Ethnicity
Nationality/cultural identification
Social class/status
Physical appearance

These things matter to the story because they matter to the people in the story. I think if you show how other characters react to the MC you can give all this information without having to tell the reader that the main character has steely blue eyes and a pronounced chin.

And then continuing, if you show how your MC reacts to the other characters reactions, then you can know the MC's motivation.

All in all, I agree with MAP. But I think that is because we both love character driven stories. If I don't find out anything interesting about the character than I feel cheated.
~Sheena


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I agree, philocinemas. Speculative fiction writers have to be very careful with metaphors, as OSC points out in his book HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, because they could be literal in a SF/F story where they are figurative in mainstream stories.

My example was intended to be taken figuratively (the classes I taught were general fiction writing, not necessarily speculative).


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tchernabyelo
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Robert, I'm intrigued now - what does "Black Irish" signify?

Where I come from, it would be someone like Phil Lynott (lead singer of Thin Lizzy) who was... well, black, and Irish.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, the "casting director" story I told was for a movie called The Wild Geese. For a character who was described as "Black Irish," the creative people wanted somebody like Richard Burton or Sean Connery or Roger Moore. (I think they settled on Moore.) The casting director was going to send the script to O. J. Simpson.

None of those guys were actually "Black Irish." I can't think of anybody contemporary...if you remember the actor / comic Pat Harrington, and what he looked like, he came across in appearance as "Black Irish."

I guess it would break down as an Irishman---I don't know how it applies to women---who's a little darker of complexion and maybe a little hairier than the usual ethnic type of appearance we associate with "regular" Irishmen. It's sometimes said they're descended from the shipwrecked refugees from the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but that theory has been pretty much exploded.


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pdblake
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All I really want is what is relevant to the story but what I really hate is to get a decription of someone late on in the story. By then I already have an image in my head and to find that the handsome hero has three eyes and tentacles is usually a bit of a jolt.

Oh, and tell me his name by all means, but make it pronouncable and preferably less than twenty characters. I hate jaw cracking names that are there just because "it's fantasy" and its traditional in your world to have a name starting with 'Xst' that always ends in a 'z' and has no vowels in between.

Anything else, if it hasn't got any releveance to the story or character development, leave it out.

[This message has been edited by pdblake (edited November 03, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by pdblake (edited November 03, 2010).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Pierce Brosnan is Black Irish--black hair and blue eyes also signify black Irish.
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posulliv
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I agree that including ‘… those details that are required by the story’ is the thing to do. That raises a more fundamental question; what are those details?

As a reader I’ve decided that the details that matter to me are those that reveal character. These details may differ from story to story.

Perhaps another way of saying this is “Writers, please leave out any details that do not reveal character until I know the main character’s nature.”

Description of clothing, physical characteristics, even attributes like gender, class, and race are only useful if they reveal something about the character that illuminates the character’s nature.

Describing a character’s dress, for example, can be used to reveal a character’s circumstances as well as character. I would argue that until I understand a character’s nature I, your reader, couldn’t discern the difference between a transitive condition and an important fact about the character’s nature.

As a reader I supply the underlying value judgments. I’m a 21st century westerner; if you're writing a story at odds with my society's conventions then please, spell it out so I don't feel stupid making assumptions that are subsequently proved wrong.

So we get to the laundry list of things readers want to know about characters, those details required by the story. Gender, class, physical attractiveness, the list goes on, and all of them may provide a shorthand for understanding character relative to the cultural norms of the reader or, if the writer makes this clear up front, the cultural norms of the character’s society.

For example, Jane Austen’s women live in a society where class and sex fundamentally defines one’s role in life. Austen must describe a character’s sex and class; they matter immensely in degrees both familiar and alien to most modern readers.

In contrast, sex and class convey much less information about a character in Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels, where one’s sex is mutable and class obsolete for those of the Culture. Banks must focus the reader’s attention on other attributes to reveal character in the context of his stories.

The more alien the culture to the reader, the more thought the writer must put into selecting those characteristics essential to revealing character and focusing my (the reader’s) attention on those defining details. What those defining details are depends upon the story.

Anyway, I thought ‘Black Irish’ meant Phil Lynott as well, or maybe all North Dubliners (“Say it loud, we’re black and we’re proud.” Jimmy Rabbitte, in Roddy Doyle’s THE COMMITMENTS). I didn’t know Pierce Brosnan was part of the tribe until today. He’s very welcome, I'm sure.

[This message has been edited by posulliv (edited November 03, 2010).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Well, I'd always thought he was Black Irish. <shrug>

I think Timothy Dalton is Black Irish as well, but I can't really say for certain about either of them. That has just been my understanding of what "Black Irish" means.

Again, <shrug>.


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NoTimeToThink
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I really don't need any descriptive details. EXCEPT - please give me any details you feel are important ASAP. Otherwise, I will build an image in my mind, then it will conflict with what you tell me later, my mind will snap back while I reconstruct my imagination withe the late-given detail, and I will have to sue for mental whiplash.
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posulliv
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Kathleen,

I'm sure you're right. I've read the phrase in books, but I've never heard anyone use the term in conversation.

If James Bond, Timothy Dalton, and (one presumes) the Corrs are examples of the breed I'll have to revise my mental image.


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Luna Jade Adelle
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I agree with NoTimeToThink. I hate it when I find out later that the image I have in my head is totally wrong. I am a detail-oriented person, so in the beginning of a story I will often deliberately pick out details from a story to build an image of a character that I think is close to what the Author was actually trying to create. So I like to have a lot of information.
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Robert Nowall
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Well, according to the Internet Movie Database, Pierce Brosnan was born in Ireland...and Timothy Dalton was born in Wales, but is described as "a mixture of Italian, Irish and English." Black Irish as I've been given to understand it? Maybe...

Belatedly, he're a link to Wikipedia's article on the subject:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Irish


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Owasm
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I look at the introduction of the main character a bit more graphically. Consider the opening scene as a painting. The main character is part of the painting. If there is no 'tagging' of the main character with description, the picture of the main character remains a gray space. The more description, the better the reader has of knowing the MC. It actually goes deeper than that because there is a metaphysical aspect to that painting and you have to include motivation, interaction, and importance of that character in the plot.

That doesn't mean the MC needs to be fully fleshed out mentally or physically in the first few pages, but enough so the reader gets a start of knowing that person.

It increases the readers connection to what is about to happen.

My two cents.

Black Irish? Dark haired and not looking as much as what is considered ethnic Irish. I'd say Sean Connery (who is a Scot) looks like my perception of Black Irish as is the guy who was Sharpe's Sergeant Harper in the (Sean Bean as Sharpe) TV series.


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