Describing the appearance of characters

29 07 2018

I won’t lie. Description is my Achilles’ heel. I’m terrible at reading it too, skipping over swathes of it. I like it short and sweet; to know the character in as few words as possible. (Yet Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite books. Go figure.)

Every writer has strengths and weaknesses. But if we want to be good writers we need to know how to handle each tool in the box without hurting ourselves.

If, like me, physical description doesn’t come easily to you, you may be tempted to leave it out, or to insert frustratingly clunky, lonely sentences into your story. But description should be an integral part, besties with your plot, characterisation and atmosphere. When the reader encounters your character, they want to like, love or hate them straight away, even if you deviously change their mind later.

Physical attributes alone are kind of uninteresting. What does being skinny or stocky, tall or short tell you about real people? Nothing by themselves, except perhaps your own prejudices.

But how people have influenced the way they look, whether through their activities that day, ongoing lifestyle choices, poverty of prosperity? Now they are what tell a story. Sun-aged skin, shaved head, smart trousers, penguin walk, a tall person who hunches, a short person with balled fists (sorry, slipping into stereotypes!) – that says something.

Countering Kassad’s stone cut features, the poet’s face was as mobile and expressive as an Earth primate’s. His voice was a loud and profane rasp.

– Dan Simmons, Hyperion

As well as learning something important about both Kassad and Silenus the poet, their (potential) relationship to each other, and what Silenus sounds like, words like ‘loud’ and ‘profane’ are most likely invoking an emotional reaction. And one word tells you it’s sci-fi. All that in two sentences.

Avoid character description cliches. At best it’s unoriginal and dull. At worst it reinforces prejudice. A plunging neckline does not automatically mean slut. Muscles do not necessarily mean thug. A gay man doesn’t equal a high-pitched voice. (I find it fun to turn these on their head – a plunging neckline on a guy, for instance.)

This is particularly important for female characters who are often given short shrift by physical characterisation. I beg you not to define them by their pert breasts, alabaster skin, or delicate feet, yawn, especially if it’s their point of view. That’s all about (your) male gaze and will lead to two dimensional characters. So unless your story is told by a shallow, appearance-driven man who talks in cliches, or you can write like Raymond Chandler, leave it alone.

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

– Raymond Chandler, The High Window

It’s firmly focussed on her appearance but not a tit, leg or bum in it. Raymond draws on your experience to instantly build a picture. Like Dan, he manipulates your emotions: Wow! Then: OMG..! Is she sexy or do you despise her? Or feel pity? Or distrust her? Is she manipulative or vulnerable – or both?

When I am seven days old I am brought to my mother’s bed…She looks quite different fully clothed. She has long legs and red lips and green eyes and smells of something other than the usual milk.

– Sophie Duffy, The Generation Game

I didn’t realise until the end of the novel, but these three sentences are quite brilliantly loaded with clues, far beyond the length of mum’s legs, her lips and eyes. I’ve been pre-warned that motherhood may not be top of her list, but her lack of a milky smell – all important to a baby – isn’t really about my first assumption – that mother likes perfume. ‘She looks quite different’ is not simply the limitation of new born faculties. But there I’ll stop, because I urge you to read it and realise the clues for yourself.

What I also like about Dan and Sophie’s descriptions is they include sound and smell. If there’s physical contact between characters, you could employ touch and taste too.

As always, if you want to develop your writing, go read. Examine your favourite characters and puzzle out how the author’s description made you love them or love to hate them.

Written by Louisa Davison.


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