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!

Adjective advice

On December 28, 2011, FightingIrishFan1111 wrote, I am one of those people who loves to use adjectives, but I think I use too many adjectives! For example, is it better to say: “Her hair was brown”, rather than “her luscious, long hair was auburn with flecks of dark mahogany”? I think I over-write some characteristics of my characters! Any suggestions about how to approach looks, personality, and other descriptions would be great!

So, “her hair was brown” is dull. “Her luscious, long hair was auburn with flecks of dark mahogany” is over the top, in my opinion. How can we make both of them work?

Marnie is dressing for a party and feeling a shade insecure about her appearance. When she’s done she asks her two goldfish what they think and narrates their answers. Goldfish #1 says, “The bedroom light brings out the flecks of dark mahogany in Marnie’s luscious, long auburn hair and reflects the twinkle in her sky blue eyes.” Goldfish #2 says, “Nothing to write home about. Brown hair, blue eyes like a million other girls at a thousand other parties.”

What’s happened? We hauled in character development. Marnie is balanced in her uncertainty. There’s that positive side that thinks she may actually look great and the negative that’s blaring Ordinary! This is, as they say, relatable.

If we see Marnie from the outside only, whether she’s gorgeous or unremarkable, we’re unlikely to connect. Most readers (not all) want to know what a character looks like, but they want to get acquainted with her inner life as well, and they’ll probably welcome a peek into the intersection of the two.

The adjectives work in this example, too. They’re not coming from an author piling them on, they’re issuing from the mouths of goldfish.

Notice I don’t put Marnie in front of a mirror. She probably does look in one, but mirrors as a vehicle of physical description (and as portals to another world) are so overused that we want to stay away from them unless we can come up with something fresh (as I hope I did in Fairest).

How to introduce appearance?

You can do it directly in narration. When your main character first encounters another character she can note her impressions in her narration. Here’s how Elodie does it in Beloved Elodie when she meets the only other child in the book, Master Robbie:

    An artist could have sketched his face almost entirely in straight lines: the head a triangle ending in a pointed chin, smaller triangle for his nose, a horizontal slash for his unsmiling mouth, two angled strokes for the shadows under his cheeks, roof peaks for his eyebrows, curved lines only for his dark blue eyes and for the dot of pink that bloomed at the tip of his nose, caused by chill or a cold or weeping. Weeping, I thought. He wore mourning beads, too.
Take a look at the adjectives here: straight, pointed, smaller, horizontal, unsmiling, angled, roof, curved, dark, blue, mourning. Eleven words out of eighty-five, over ten percent. I don’t know if that’s a lot or not. And the adverbs: almost, entirely, only. Just three. When I started becoming a writer I often read that writers should keep the adjectives and adverbs to a minimum and that verbs and nouns are the strong parts of speech in English.

It’s good advice when it isn’t followed slavishly. We need all our words.

Let’s distinguish among adjectives. Generally I prefer ones that convey information. In my description of Master Robbie mine do; straight, pointed, etc., show him to the reader. I never call him handsome or ugly. I don’t say those dark blue eyes are attractive. Handsome, beautiful, attractive, luscious are adjectives I rarely use unless they’re spoken by goldfish or goldfish equivalents. If a narrator tells me, Marnie was beautiful, I want to know in what way? Who thinks so? What does her beauty mean for the story?

If the story requires it, we may need to tell the reader about Marnie’s beauty. If her beauty is important for developing character, plot, or setting, go for it. You can start your story with her pulchritude, as in, Marnie was Helen-of-Troy beautiful. Paul, owner of the Venus Modeling Agency, stood up unsteadily when she came in. If there was a manual for perfection she’d meet every standard: tall but not a giraffe, thick wavy hair that glowed like polished mahogany, a nose that Da Vinci would have paid millions to paint, and eyes the color of spring. He stuttered, “The d-dermatologist is t-two d-doors d-down, sweetheart.” Even if he couldn’t control his voice he didn’t want her getting ahead of herself with him. Then we see how she reacts to this, and we’re in.

We just saw Marnie through Paul’s eyes, delivered by a third-person narrator. If Marnie is the first-person narrator, Paul can say his bit, and his mother, who’s visiting the agency, can set him straight with, “Are you blind? She doesn’t need a dermatologist. She’s stunning.” The mother can then catalog her characteristics. In this instance, the description is conveyed in dialogue.

In my The Wish, main character Wilma is drawn by a caricaturist and this is what she thinks when the artist shows her the drawing:

    The first thing I saw was my teeth, popping out of my mouth, big and squared-off as piano keys. My whole face receded behind those teeth, except for my lips, which smiled insanely around my bicuspids and incisors and molars and fangs and tusks.
    Then I saw my shoulders. In themselves they were fine. But they cradled my head. No neck. None. My head was like a golf ball resting on a tee. Like an egg in the palm of your hand. Like a horror movie.

I was mighty proud of this, which is an imaginative description through thoughts.

These are the three description delivery methods I can think of: thoughts, narration, dialogue. Using these, the description can be given by the POV character, by another character, or by a third-person narrator.

Sentence variety also helps to make description interesting. The verb in the two sentences, “Her hair was brown.” and “Her luscious, long hair was auburn with flecks of dark mahogany.” is to be, which gets boring pretty quick. In my The Wish example the verb to be is in there, but I’ve also used receded and cradled.

Here are some prompts using the three methods:

∙    Rebecca has been cast in a play, and she and a few other actors are meeting with the costume director. Show in dialogue the appearance of each. For a twist, if you like, imagine that the entire cast are aliens or mutants, anatomically different from us. Make the reader see them through conversation (they speak English).

∙    Ingrid has a little trouble with her temper, and she’s been sent to a program for teens who need anger management. She doesn’t want to be there, and she isn’t the best-natured person on the planet. Write her thoughts describing the others in her group.

∙    Your narrator is introducing the reader to the Shandler family. As the narration proceeds, reveal character along with appearance. Think about what each one is doing during the introduction.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Mind swap

Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo writers! Whether you made your word count or not, you worked hard, and I’m guessing you have lots of new material to fuel your writing for the year. Kudos to you!

If you’re going to be in the vicinity of Tarrytown, New York, this Saturday, I’m signing. Check out the details on my website. If you come, I’ll just be signing, not reading or speaking, but I expect to have plenty of time to chat. If you come, please let me know you read about the event on the blog.

On July 29th, 2011, Emma wrote, This comment is really just food for thought, but I wondered what you and the bloggers would think. You see, my brothers were watching a Myth Busters episode called “Mission Impossible Mask” where Jamie and the other guy were trying to use a mask to fool people into believing that they were each other. However, their mannerisms gave them away so they had to have an actor teach them how to behave like one another. More recently I watched an episode of “Gilligan’s Island” where everyone got mind-swapped, and it was hilarious because they were all acting like each other and you could clearly tell who had been swapped with whom. All of that got me thinking: is there any way to make our characters and their mannerisms that recognizable? I tried a writing exercise just for fun where my MCs got mind swapped, and it’s really hard because you can’t actually see them. Do you think that’s a bad thing?

That’s a wonderful prompt, which I’ll hold for the end.

Everyone has mannerisms, some people more than others, some mannerisms more pronounced than others; everyone can be impersonated. Each way of speaking, each physical presentation, is unique. The bits that we do, our personal shtick, are myriad, so many and so slight that they’re hard to write and catch them all but obvious to see and hear. Whenever I see myself in a taped interview I’m amazed. I move around so much, like a puppet. I tilt and bob my head; my voice is breathy, which I never hear as I’m speaking. Aaa!

Here’s a prompt early in the post. List every element of physical description you can think of. Just a list. Don’t do anything with it. Here are a few items to start you off:

round shouldered
soft voice
baby talk
a lot of hand gestures
small eyes

See if you can get a page or two in your list, a few words to a line. Add to the list whenever you think of something or observe something unusual. Watch people over the next few days with your list in mind. Notice that I included in my starter list both characteristics  that have nothing to do with the personality inside the body, like small eyes, and characteristics that are mutable, that would change in a mind swap, like the hand gestures. Include both kinds of characteristics in your list, which can become a resource for you whenever you write physical description.

I was on the New York City subway yesterday. Sitting across the train car from me was a woman who managed to look up at me beseechingly even though our eyes were at a level. How did she do that? She said nothing; she wasn’t crying. But I got a sense of sadness and need. Was it the blue eye shadow, the bags under her eyes? I don’t know. I do know that she sat pigeon-toed, and the turned-in toes added to the woe somehow. The eyes and the toes would go on my list.

Here’s another prompt: Take a look at a story you’re working on. Find the spot where you introduced a character. If the physical description is solid, terrific. But if it’s a little vague, drop in something from your list.

Mannerisms are particularly useful because they reveal character as well as help the reader see the physical person. But we have to watch out and not succumb to stereotype. A slouch, for example, can mean a bunch of things. May mean Nathan feels too tall. Or his father always told him to stand straight, so, rebellious by nature, he trained himself to slouch. Or he admires an actor who slouches. You try it (another prompt): List three possible psychological explanations for Nadine’s almost inaudible speech.

Sometimes it can feel awkward to introduce physical qualities and we have to plan how to bring in the information. We can make Norman, the gesturer, do something, as in, He gestured so wildly he knocked over a Ming dynasty vase valued at $300,000. Or Nancy can say to him, “Are you swatting a fly?” Or Ned can think, Norman uses his hands a lot as if his words need extra help. These are the three ways I can come up with for inserting physical information: action, dialogue, and thoughts.

The POV character is a special case. Nellie, the narrator, can easily show other characters’ looks in her thoughts. She can also think about her own appearance and mannerisms, but she has to have a reason or she may seem vain or self-involved or self-critical – which, of course, she can certainly be. But if not, she needs an excuse. Maybe she’s about to meet new people, and she’s preparing herself by imagining how they’re going to view her. A little self-involved, but it’s a special occasion. And you still have action and dialogue. Nancy can make the fly-swatting crack to her. Nellie can knock over the Ming vase.

But we may not want to give Nellie a lot of odd characteristics or the reader may have trouble identifying. We may want her to be a blankish slate, so the reader can slip inside. If she keeps licking her lips, if she shrugs every few minutes, if she starts almost every sentence with, “Sorry, but,” the reader may find her unappealing. I keep saying “may” because you may want such a character, and some of the most endearing main characters in literature are odd. So if you want to, go for it.

Once we introduce a mannerism we don’t want to keep bringing it up. An occasional, very occasional, reminder is plenty or the reader will get irritated. And that’s what makes the mind swap harder for a writer than for an actor. When we’re watching a movie, the character’s presentation is always before us. He’s always slouching, always gesticulating, always speaking softly. Those lucky actors!

So now for the mind swap.

∙    Pick two characters in the story you’re working on and write a mind swap scene. Or pick three and make it a round-robin swap.

∙    Swap the villain from one of your stories with the villain from another and rewrite the climax. Swap the villain in one story with the hero in another.

∙    Invent new characters for your mind swap. Think of characters who wouldn’t be happy to be inside each other’s selves. For example, someone who’s terrified of heights wouldn’t do well in the body of a sky diver. You can make the switch happen right before a jump. The sky diver might be bored to death in the body of a writer.

∙    Swap the minds of two characters from books you love. For me, I’d switch Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Then, in a separate effort, with Jane and Elizabeth back in their proper bodies, I might try exchanging Rochester and Darcy. The possibilities are endless: put Hamlet in Macbeth’s place; trade Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan; Anne of Anne of Green Gables with Jo of Little Women. Or whatever you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!