Saturday, April 07, 2012

Unveiling Your Characters

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.

Friend: How?

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.

Friend: What?

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.

Friend: But--but--

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.


  1. Okay, not really about characters, but this reminds me of a discussion I just had with my soon to be college going son. I told him to look at the photos on the college sites. Sure, they're trying to portray the best parts of their institution, but the clothes, the attitudes, etc., especially of the people in the background, will give a sense of what the place is like. Do they wear suits or uniforms, do they only appear in formal settings, or are some lying on the grass, etc.

    It's the same way with characters. Who they are and what's their situation can be revealed in both what they wear and what they are doing, whether something as simple as fiddling with a pencil (often a tell for a smoker), or whether they slouch in the chair or sit ramrod straight.

    Like you, I try to show things in glimpses and in comparison because my definition of beauty might not be the same as yours, but if I say Her face belonged in a museum sculpted of the finest marble (overblown example :)), most people will see their definition of beauty and probably a white person over one carved in walnut or maple.

  2. I use to be a laundry list girl. Introducing a character was a paragraph of description on their appearance. Now I introduce what is necessary when it is necessary through what they are doing and how they are doing it and what effect that has on their appearance.

  3. As a reader? I like to initially see the own character's view/perception of him/herself, and then the view/perception of the character through the eyes of the other main character in the book. After that, I like to see if that view/perception changes (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't) and if it does change, how. Also, some physical description is good, but I usually like it better when it's not too verbose or using silly, descriptive terms. Not sure if I am making sense. All this is something that you do well, at least from where I am standing.

  4. Mireya, that's exactly what I'm working on, based on this post at Cockeyed Caravan, called "What Are The Rules They Live By":

    I don't worry so much about what characters look like. I like how prose infers a description: the cop hitching his belt over his waist, the detective rubbing his bald head in puzzlement.

    Try this experiment: read one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, and see just how little description he uses, of anything. It helps he works in the fantasy realm; a lot of that's already in the reader's head. But that leaves him with a challenge; he's got to replace the descriptive bits with plot and dialog to fill up the book. That's hard.

  5. As a reader I used to dislike it when the author would overly spread out bits of physical description. This largely annoyed me when I was younger and reading YA, but I've found that I tend to add large chunks of physical description for that very reason (but cut most of it down and smooth it out in drafts).

    I'd already made up the missing bits in my mind, so the character has brown hair. 20 pages later the author mentions that the character has blond hair. Ooops, no sorry author. You had your chance. I've already formed an image and he has BROWN hair. No matter how many times after that the author mentions hair color, my image of the character will still have brown hair. I've found that the author has a very short amount of time before I've already formed the image of a character. The longer it goes between descriptive bits, the more strongly my image sticks.

    Still, I do like it when one character is sizing up another. It says a lot about both characters, not just the one being physically described.

  6. I guess I'm a 50/50 descriptor. I try to introduce little bits here and there, but sometimes, the physical is necessary for the moment. That sort of thing comes with practicing your craft though and reading the authors you love, learning how they do things. They have something going for them and usually character description is one of them. Usually.

  7. I'm with B.C. Matthews (comment above). If I don't get a description fairly soon into the plot--basics like hair and eye color--I'll imagine them for myself and it will stay that way, regardless of what the author says later on.

    When I'm writing, I try to give a quick, fast description, then fill in other details as I go along. He can have his brown hair and green eyes, but until he has a good reason to smile, we initially won't know about those killer dimples.

  8. Great post. Thanks for sharing!!

  9. As a writer and reader, too much detail turns me off. I would much rather start off with less and grab bits and pieces throughout the story. A basic "visual" can be put into place with small amounts of precise detail. I like giving detail and description in subtle ways so the reader might not even be sure where it came from until they go back to find it!

  10. Been going over your writing tips to try and get an handle on my latest Nano. This is a great post because my description skills are... well.. not there. When I do try to describe a character it is with very little thought of the actual person in mind so I must try to get their face in my head or perhaps I'll get a generic photo off the net and to describe that... but I do like the idea of just bits of description and not everything at once.


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