On March 25, 2020, NerdyNiña wrote, How do you describe characters? I can see them in my mind, but I don’t know how to get the important details onto the page. Also, I tend to overuse certain phrases: she smiled, he looked up, I turned, etc. How can I describe physical movement and facial expressions more distinctly?
A discussion followed.
Melissa Mead: I don’t always, unless it matters to the story. Ex, the WIP has a major character named Julia. She’s important to the story, one of the people that Malak cares about the most, but aside from noting that she’s one of the few humans he knows, I don’t describe her much at all. Hopefully that allows the reader to identify with her in a world full of angels and demons.
(Ok, you got me curious. On page 341 it says “it sounded like Honored Julia, the voice of this woman he’d never seen, with her freckled, square-jawed face and untidy hair threaded with gray.” And there’s an earlier mention of demon-bite scars on her arm. But I don’t know her eye color, for example.)
So: The first thing is to decide which details matter in the context of the story. Ex, I mention Malak’s gold eyes because neither angels nor demons have eyes that color. What stands out about your character? What causes other people to treat them differently? What makes them special, unusual, honored, or shunned?
A lot will depend on the POV, too. Whose eyes are we seeing this person through? (and ditto for the other senses.)
Me: There are phrases that are almost impossible to avoid, like ones you mention: smile, turn, look up. Getting fancy will seem strange. The reader is likely to just note the action and move on, unperturbed. These are like “said,” which disappears.
Melissa Mead: I was thinking about your question and had another thought about choosing which details to mention. While I don’t remember if I thought this consciously at the time, here are some purposes those particular details about Julia serve: (I also just realized that this and the previous posts are spoilers. Malak’s not positive it’s really Julia at that point, and neither are we. If the book ever does come out, just forget about them, OK? (Actually, knowing her name doesn’t matter THAT much.))
“Square-jawed face”: They’re in a tense situation here, and this woman’s not backing down.
“Freckles and untidy hair”- When Malak first met her, she was a teenager who didn’t always follow the rules.
“threaded with gray”- Now she’s middle aged. She looks older, but Malak doesn’t. (and that’s why knowing her name isn’t too much of a spoiler, because the real question is “How much has she changed, and whose side is she on?”)
NerdyNiña: Right, so the details we include should say something about the character’s personality.
Writing Ballerina: To add to this, the details you mention will also depend on the POV character, or the character who’s noticing them. Mrs. Levine mentions how she does this in… Writer to Writer, I think it is. From THE WISH, her character Wilma loves dogs, so, because it’s through Wilma’s POV, Mrs. Levine describes other characters by relating them to dogs. I can’t quote the exact scene because I sadly don’t own THE WISH, but I know that one girl is described like a Pomeranian, with a sharp laugh and nervous darting eyes (if I got that right).
Other, less noticeable traits can be described like this. Someone who sings may notice people’s voices more. Someone who is an artist may notice the exact shade of someone’s shirt, or the shape of their jaw. This doesn’t necessarily relate to describing people, but I read a book where the POV character had perfect pitch, so they would notice that their gate squeaked in Bb or the dog’s yap was a shrill C. That also brings up the point that the POV character will affect how everything is described, not just the people.
Erica: I have a hard time with this too, especially since I have a hard time noticing/interpreting facial expressions. My only advice is that not everyone notices everything, so your character might not have to.
Thank you, Writing Ballerina, for remembering my ideas! You got it right about the Pomeranian!
These are great! I agree that a good time to drop in a little character description is when the plot will accommodate it.
I watch very little TV or cable news and rarely see a movie. Most of my information about current events, sports, and celebrities comes via radio, so I don’t know what many super-famous people look like. I make them up. For example, the first time I saw immunologist Anthony Fauci, I was astonished. I expected him to have a long, gaunt face, high cheekbones, and hollowed-out cheeks. Certainly not those stick-out ears. Doesn’t matter. I pictured him without any information.
Readers do that too. Sometimes when I read a description of a character that doesn’t match up with the ideas I’ve already formed, my own impression sticks.
In my historical novel A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, the reader picks up from information here and there that my main character Loma is: short, because everyone in her family is; darker-skinned than the Spanish royals; pretty in a way that’s never described; and plump. That’s all I remember, but I just jumped around in the book to see what I can find, and I found that the reader learns that she has thick eyelashes–on page 165. The reader finds out the color of other characters’ eyes, but not Loma’s.
We don’t need to put much in, unless our plot demands it or a character pays attention to appearance.
But we may have a plot reason. In my “Snow White” retelling, Fairest, MC Aza believes she’s ugly, and a good deal of the plot revolves around that. In narration she describes herself unflatteringly. Here’s a snippet: I resembled a snow maid, with a big sphere of a face and round button eyes. She also describes other people to compare them with herself–mostly to make herself feel bad. This is a case of plot and character-driven describing.
The description doesn’t have to be brought about by the thrust of the story. The cause can be a little plot point. In Sparrows in the Wind (which will come out someday), Paris is one of the characters who causes the Trojan War, and he’s the brother of Cassandra, my MC in the first half of the book. They don’t meet until he’s grown up and she’s a teenager. (It’s a long story, which you may know from the mythology.) He describes Cassandra because he wants there to be a strong sibling resemblance, and that’s how the reader finds out she has a strong chin.
If we’re describing a character’s face, we don’t have to touch on every feature. We can even skip the features entirely and say something about his skin or the giant pimple next to his nose.
We can describe characters in narration, either in the thoughts of our POV character or in the voice of an outside narrator.
And we can do it in dialogue, as in Anne of Green Gables, when Gilbert Blythe whispers piercingly, “Carrots! Carrots!”
There other less common ways too–in a diary; a letter; a newspaper report; even in action (think Pinocchio’s nose, for example).
When it comes to describing a character we see clearly in our minds, we can ask ourselves what we see first, what stands out. Say it’s our character’s mouth, which always looks sad. We can start with the mouth then. Maybe it doesn’t turn down but it’s always flat even when something funny or happy or very sad is happening. That flat mouth seems incapable of showing feeling though feeling is clearly there. Or it’s her posture or her height.
We can ask how her character and personality show in her looks or are hidden by them. Maybe she’s secretive, and her lidded eyes give nothing away. Or he’ll believe any lie, betrayed by his rounded eyebrows.
There are other questions we can consider. How is the character different from or like the people around her? How does he resemble (or not) others in his family? What about them do others respond to, positively or negatively? What physical qualities will help or hinder our character as the plot unfolds?
These kinds of questions are likely to take us to surprises, usually a good thing.
Two pitfalls that I can think of to watch out for: 1. Having a character look in a mirror and describe what they see has been done many times, including by me in The Wish. It’s hard to find a fresh way to do it, but if one pops up in our imagination, we can go for it. 2. Stopping the action for a long description of a character’s appearance, a mini infodump. We can do this too, but we need a good reason. For example, lengthy character descriptions are a frequent feature of detective novels, and readers expect them–and clues and red herrings may be wrapped up in them.
As for physical movement, I think simple is fine, unless there is something extraordinary about the way someone moves. We can think about this too when we’re imagining a character. Their nervous nature can come out in their quick movements or be belied by their languor.
Here are three prompts:
• Write a scene or a story based on this: He could read my thoughts and I couldn’t even interpret his expression. This is why telepaths were hated. Even I hated him.
• Write a contemporary “Rumpelstiltskin” in a modern world in which short beings are the underclass.
• Start your story here: Sleeping Beauty opened her eyes, rubbed them, and stared at the prince.
Have fun, and save what you write!