A new theory about a hotly-debated religious relic recently popped up in the news (and the news item will remain unnamed in this post so as not to attract any attention from the flaming sector of debaters). Since I once extensively researched a similar artifact for a story, a friend e-mailed me the link. Then, because my friend believes the newsy relic is authentic, we ended up debating it:
Me: It's a fake. It's an excellent one, and the artwork is really convincing, but it's a fake.
Friend: No, it's real. They've done all kinds of scientific tests on it and they can't explain how it was made. It might even date it back to the time of Christ.
Me: Okay, so they faked it in the time of Christ.
Friend: You're going to burn in hell, you know.
Me: Undoubtedly. But it's still a fake.
Friend: How can you say that? You weren't there. You don't know.
Me: I know just from looking at it.
Me: Let's agree on two things first: I know fabric, and I know how to drape, yes?
Friend: Those curtains you made for the livingroom are pretty awesome. I agree.
Me: Let's also agree that [the relic] contains a perfect image of the Holy One's face, right? Eyes, nose, mouth, chin, it's all there. Every detail.
Friend: That's why it's real.
Me: Sure it would be real, if the Holy One had been a paperdoll.
Me: Unless they're the victim of a total facial smash, or their family tree only had one branch on it, human beings generally have three-dimensional faces. Wrap or drape a face with cloth -- even a mystical one that has the power to magically transfer an image of what it's touching -- and at best you'll get contact impressions from the highest points on the face: a blob in the middle for the nose, maybe a blob under that for the chin, and two vertical ridges for the eyebrows. The eyes won't show. Also, when you flatten out the cloth it will distort the image.
Me: The relic's image is complete and perfectly flat. Like a paperdoll's. As if it were rendered by people who sucked at realistically portraying dimensional objects. Like, say, medieval people who faked stuff.
Friend: I hate you.
Me: You're welcome.
When you're writing about your characters, you generally need to describe them to the reader. Beginners do this like a laundry list: He was six-foot-five with shoulder-length pitch black hair. His eyes were gold, his nose was patrician and his mouth was sexy. His cheekbones were sharp. His jaw was hard like concrete. His chin was dimpled (the big tip-off that you may be laundry-listing is the endless use of was, was, was.)
Even after a writer improves enough to get past the wases, there's still the tendency to describe all of the character's features at once to the reader in hopes of giving them a clear visual.
I think it's more interesting to scatter character description through the story. When you look at someone, what's the first thing you notice? Eyes, hair, clothes, body frame? I've tested myself and I tend to look at their clothes first, probably because I really do love fabric. Also the colors, patterns, fit and style of clothing choices offer interesting hints about the person. This is also why many of my character descriptions begin with what they're wearing.
Rather than listing details for the reader, I try to portray them by seeing them through another character's eyes and working in their impressions of who they're looking at from their POV. We all have some sort of emotional reaction to what we see, especially when it's other people, and those emotions help paint a more dimensional portrait for the reader.
Writers, how do you approach describing characters? Readers, what sort of character descriptions work best for you? Let us know in comments.