Revealed or Concealed?

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!

  1. This is a great post! One thing I will say is that you can have a lot of fun playing around with descriptions. In a story my grandmother wrote and I copied onto a computer, the MC looked exactly like his father, but he had his mother’s eyes, and she used that absolutely brilliantly to show one of the narrator’s shifting opinion of him. (I could explain more fully, but it would get really, really complicated.) And there’s another character whose eyes are the same color as his uniform, and that comes up a lot, too. You can tell which of the main characters she’s talking about just from a mention of their eyes. (Although I do think the phrase “big brown eyes” got overused.) Also, I read that first prompt and immediately thought of a character it would be perfect for, so thanks for that.

  2. I love writing character descriptions! My current WIP is a sci-fi story about alternate universes within books. My MC of course loves to read and loves to describe other characters with grandeur. One thing I try to do if I describe a character’s looks is to give the reader a feeling when they read about that person and a clear image. As for gestures, I think body language is very important as it reflects what a character is feeling. I act quite a bit and have struggled with figuring out gestures to convey feelings that I’m not actually feeling. When that is done it can be very hard to believe a character – that is why I think it’s important in writing. I also feel that there are certain traits I notice more readily in people based on my own self-consciousness. I am very short so height is something I am blatantly aware of, so I think if you could incorporate that in a story it would definitely make the reader understand the situations more.

  3. My brain is so weird. Here’s what I thought when I read ” Sleeping Beauty opened her eyes, rubbed them, and stared at the prince.”

    …or tried to. Her eyes refused to focus on him, sliding to the chair beside him, or the table behind him.
    Wait. She could see the table, and the bowl of dusty fruit on it, right through him.
    “How did you manage to kiss me?” she croaked.

    I may have to do something with this.

  4. I have a novel set in a desert area. Here, everyone has the same features: brown eyes, black hair, and tanned skin. This led to less physical description and more individual details. For example, one character has brilliant posture from being raised in the royal court. This stands out to the MC, who grew up on the street. Another has a perfectly trimmed goatee and eyebrows.

  5. I used to struggle with this. I would give the character description in an info dump and then never touch on it again, and it was usually the generic hair color, eye color, and maybe clothes. I gradually improved over the years, but my switch to screenwriting in the past 4 years has forced me to reconsider character descriptions. In screenwriting, you can’t always control which actors get cast as each character, so you have to pare it down to one or two defining traits and leave the rest up to the casting director. Doing this has allowed me to be more conscientious about which descriptors are absolutely necessary and which are superfluous. For example, in my WIP the main character is an 18 or 19 year old with brilliant red hair. The red hair is an important characteristic because the story revolves around a country where it is illegal for anyone other than royalty to have red hair. But other than that, other details depend on the actor who fits the role. You would think something like this would be restrictive, but I’ve found it to be incredibly freeing, as it’s allowed me to focus on only what’s important to the story.

    • Me as well. But then I watched Brandon Sanderson and the lectures he did at BYU, and some lectures by James Hynes, and that helped a lot. I learned to add little details here and there, so the reader has to piece together what the MC looks like. Though I’m more of a novel writer, than screen play writer.

  6. Fantasywriter6 says:

    I have a question. What are some ways that y’all would suggest to improve writing technique? Aside from writing all the time, obviously. How can I learn to make my language, mood, and overall technique better? If this is a dumb question, and the answer is just “you have it or you don’t”, then sorry!:) I just have recently read a work done by a peer, and, I mean, I generally think that my language is pretty good, but when I read her work- even just aside from the plot and characters, her language, pacing, and overall voice were phenomenal. I’d like to get better at all of that!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      NOT a dumb question! I’m adding it to my list. In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking about language, I’d suggest you read THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, a very old book by William Strunk, which came out in a new edition last year, though Mr. Strunk is long gone. I used to lick the elegant sentences off the page!

    • I’ve found that analyzing things you really like can be quite helpful. Not just “Oh, that’s really good,” but “What is it about this story that appeals to me? Which techniques does the author use to create this effect?” Once you have those answers, you can look for a way to incorporate that into your writing. You can also absorb those things by osmosis, but it takes longer and the process is harder to put into words. If you can manage it, I would suggest asking the peer you admire how she got to be so good and see if she might have any tips. But analyzing and osmosis work, too.

    • It’s definitely something you can learn, not something you have or don’t.
      In addition to White and Strunk, may I recommend Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark? It’s another excellent book that talks about the little ways you can play with language to make it work for your story.

      And, of course, read a lot! I usually get so involved in reading stories that I don’t pick apart details as I go (except sometimes some big picture things like plot structure points), but even if it’s by osmosis, you’ll pick up a greater vocabulary and greater mastery of word usage.

    • Me and my sister are the same way. I write something I think is really good, and I’ll read one of the like five stories she’s working on and be like wow that is so much better. But the things that I have read from the authors that I admire, is just read a crap load of what ever genre you’re writing in. I know that, it’s helped me a lot.

  7. FantasyFan101 says:

    I know how you feel. My friend’s writing is, as you say, phenomenal. I’d just say, think about yourself. What do you sound like in your head? Smart, curious, happy, sad etc.? If you’re doing close focus 3rd POV, my favorite, make your voice sound like the character’s personality. My friend from above has a character that is very resentful and has had a lot of loss, and the story definitely revolves a lot around that when she’s writing. It makes her romance especially hard, because she doesn’t want to possibly lose another loved one. She tries to keep herself cold and cut off from any possible friendships. The voice of the story always has to do with the characters involved. Technique, I don’t know. It’s your story, so write it as you want. The mood also depends on what your characters are feeling. If they’re happy, describe everything brightly and joyfully. Sad, you know what to do. I hope this helps!

  8. So, I’m pretty sure the answer will be “don’t worry and write what you want” (especially since I’m an indie author and do that anyway), but here’s a question…

    I’m working on a retelling of 12 Dancing Princesses as a mystery (the twelve girls are all suspects). It has mystery elements but it’s still very firmly a YA fantasy (magic, royalty, a fantasy feel). The point of view character is the “detective”–the soldier who has to figure everything out.

    My question is, will the story find readers if it’s a YA fantasy fairytale with a male protagonist? I’ve heard recently that male YA protags are a hard sale, and I do worry that the girls would be turned off by the point of view, and the guys by the princesses/fairy tale trappings/romance. Any thoughts? Or any tips for making the story more appealing for both genders? I know Gail has Dave at Night, and half of Ever, and some of the short fairy tale retellings… am I missing any other male POV characters?

    • i💜writing says:

      I mean, Harry Potter is from a boy’s point of view, and it still appeals to children, adults, males, females…I do know that this is kind of middle grade, but if the story is good enough–which I have no doubt you can make it!–it will speak beyond the protagonist’s gender.

    • That book sounds absolutely amazing. I mean, arguably, 12 Dancing Princesses is already a mystery, so you’re just emphasizing that part over the adventure part. And I think the male protagonist might actually draw readers in because it’s such an unusual slant to take. And given the number of TTDP retellings with both the soldier and one of the princesses as protagonists, going from that to just the guy isn’t really that big of a step. I wouldn’t worry about the POV at all. After all, if the story needs it, then put it in, and who cares what everybody else thinks. (Says the person who’s never gotten a story published, :))

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        The popular wisdom when I was starting out, which may still be true, is that girls will happily read a book from a male POV but not vice versa.

    • Fantasywriter6 says:

      I love YA fantasy books with a male perspective! I think it’s kind of a breath of fresh air actually, and I’m sure others do to. I say don’t hurt your art for merchandising’s sake, but if this is a really big concern then I have a few suggestions to break it up a bit. You could do little snippets or even full chapters from the 1st POV of one of the princesses, or even a close 3rd. This can also help give the readers little clues and bits of info that the soldier-detective doesn’t necessarily have yet since it’s a mystery. Then again, this might be bad advice or not work with your story at all, so you know best!

  9. i💜writing says:

    Also, I know this is weird, but what are you calling your twelve princesses? I’m always kind of interested, as I’ve written a TTDP retelling before.

    • These ones are cousins, not all sisters, so they don’t have any particular theme. They’re also the daughters of the main characters from my last series (I named them all first, and then when I realized there were twelve exactly, how could I not use the fairytale?) Their parents rule different kingdoms.

      I’ll put the actual sisters in parenthesis: (Celeste)(Kelda, Larina)(Innis, Irvette)(Terra, Viola, Aura Brynn, Lilac, Olive)(Auralee “Allie”, Minnea “Min”)

      I collected these names for a different idea with a group of sisters. They all end in a letter of the alphabet: Shae, Ruby, Lucy, Sadie, Ellee, Steff, Angie, Rach, Loralai. If I were doing twelve, I’d have to figure out JKL.

  10. Thanks for using my question, Ms. Levine!
    Now I have another question for everyone. When you’re making a fantasy world, how do you make the geography and landscape real in your mind? I’ve tried making maps, but I just can’t picture it fully. Even though I’m a very visual learner, I have trouble picturing places I’ve never seen. What do you all do?

      • NerdyNiña says:

        Wow, these are great! I could spend so long just answering all of them. But that would probably just be stealing on actual writing.

    • All I’ve tried is looking at pictures of real places that look similar to what I imagine, but admittedly, that works a lot better with jewelry and clothes than landscapes. (One perk of fiction is that you can give your characters really elaborate jewelry that no one would ever wear in the real world.) Honestly, though, I just make stuff up and go with it. My grandmother once drew a map of each level of a twenty-level spaceship, LABELING EVERY SINGLE ROOM, but I’m nowhere near that dedicated. I just try not to contradict myself and hope the readers don’t care either.

      • NerdyNiña says:

        I love imagining my characters’ clothes, which is mostly why I’m setting this world vaguely in the mid- 1700s.

    • Like Katie W, I start with something real and then move things around. For Keita’s Wings, I started with a color wheel for where the kingdoms would go, but I realized pretty quickly that I would need a map. I have a paint file with the map of the whole world, which definitely has some influence from the western US. I add cities or label areas as needed. When I publish a book, I make a smaller map for the book with only the areas that are relevant for that particular book.
      For a dragon series I may eventually write, I started with a real place, traced it out on cardboard, and painted it. I looked up a wikipedia article that divided the real place into regions, and painted those in. As I write, I’ll fill in cities and smaller rivers, and name the regions.

    • Kit Kat Kitty says:

      I would look on Youtube. I have found videos from reviewing different map-making software to videos about how to avoid adding features that don’t make sense or are physically impossible. Once you know the rules and have a better idea of how other people make maps, it might become easier to create your own.
      It also might help if you think of important features of your world. For example, if you have a river that holds some significance to the characters in your world, it might help to think where the river starts, where it ends, and the settlements that have been built near it.
      I’d also like to add that depending on the scope of your story, you don’t have to create a map of the entire world. A map of a continent, group of islands, country, or even a specific region in a country would be great if they served your story best.
      Some websites will also generate fantasy maps for you if you wanted to try one of those out. More advanced map makers will cost money, but I’ve used a few free ones that would work great if you’re going for something simple.

  11. So I have a story idea, but I need some help. It’s Beauty and the Beast from the perspectives of Belle and an enchanted mirror who’s also in love with the Beast. My problem is, I can’t figure out why the prince would have gotten turned into the Beast if he weren’t somehow horrible. I was thinking about a gender-flipped Sleeping Beauty, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work.

    • Plenty of retellings I’ve read have had the beast an innocent victim: his mother was a fairy at war with her sister, and he was caught in the crossfire. Or he was the son of a nobleman who did cruel experiments on him.

      There are also some where he did something bad, but not completely irredeemable. Everyone makes mistakes, horrible or not. Maybe he forgot to attend an important meeting, or ate a loaf of bread intended for charity, or fired a servant who fell asleep on the job (not knowing that she’d been up all night tending her sick mother).

      In mine, there was an argument between the beast and her aunt/mentor. They were supposed to be finding the beast’s runaway cousin, and got trapped on an island. The aunt lost her temper and abandoned the “beast” there, and she got stuck as a beast while trying to swim for shore (the beast character can change into bear form, but if she stays for too long, she’ll get stuck). And I have notes for a gender-bent Sleeping Beauty, but it’s pretty specific to my world. The rescuing princess is a dreamrover–she has the ability to interact with others’ dreams–so she’s the only one who can communicate with the “prince”, who has been trapped in dormancy for a century. I don’t know if any of that sparks an idea or two.

      • In my retelling the princes father was a cruel man and was harsh to his kingdom and could get angry at the drop of a hat and have a servant or executed just cause. So a good witch intervened and as punishment turned his son into a monster, and put him into a magic mirror, ( I am literally coming up with this as I go ) But then the witches evil TWIN sister kills her and pretends to be her sister. And somehow the belle character is related to the sisters and the prince finds her and… wants revenge? And he recognizes that she looks like her aunt?
        I’ll think on it. If any one has any ideas, let me know.

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