Appearances

A few comments came in late on the last post, so you may want to check them out before or after you read this.

On April 29, 2011, Jill wrote, Shakespeare would spell words differently or make up words to make his sentences sound “pretty” and Daphne du Maurier never said the name of the narrator in Rebecca.
    I have a story and I never want to describe her appearance because I want anyone to see themselves as her. With this and the other examples, do you like it or not? Who else did things like this?

I don’t know examples of works in which the main character isn’t described although there may be many. In some genres – romance, for example – physical description is pretty much required. Mystery as well, I think.

As a reader, I’m not sure. I’m reading a novel now, The Good Son by Craig Nova (high school and above), which is told from alternating first-person POVs. I don’t remember if one of the POV characters is described, but I’ve fashioned a mental picture of him anyway. He’s a he, obviously, and I still manage to identify with him. So far I find him the most sympathetic character in the book.

Jill, I’m not sure if you’re making a distinction between identifying with a character and seeing oneself as that character. The first can happen, usually should happen, the second can’t and probably shouldn’t.

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Anne of Green Gables, and one of my favorite moments was when Anne breaks her writing slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head . I identified totally with Anne, but in real life I never would have hit anyone’s pate with anything, regardless of the provocation. My delight in Anne’s defiant act was complete. She surprised me and I loved her for it, but I couldn’t have seen myself as her.

We go to books, in part, for alternatives to our narrow selves. After reading Anne of Green Gables, even if I still couldn’t avenge myself physically, maybe I could figure out a satisfying retort to an offense. At the least, I could take pleasure in imagining what Anne would have done.

As we write, our characters make decisions. They can’t be Everyman because each man acts differently. As a reader – and a writer – I slip inside selves other than my own. My characters behave differently from me.

In most cases, I guess I’d rather have physical description than not. We’re physical beings and we form impressions of people, rightly or wrongly, based in part by looks. And other people respond to us on the same basis. I’m very short, four-foot-ten-and-a-half, to be precise. This perspective affects me profoundly. My life probably would have been different, for better or worse, if I had seven more inches. I like being short, but I wouldn’t pass up a chance to be tall for a day, just for the experience. When I make a character tall I have to think about that decision and be aware of it as I write.

Long ago on the blog I mentioned a memoir, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (also high school and above), who had some sort of cancer as a child that left her face deformed. It’s a book of suffering. Appearance, like it or not, is important.

I read Autobiography of a Face when I was preparing to write Fairest, in which Aza, my heroine, is ugly. There would be no story without her ugliness. Still, readers identify with her, and we identify with Lucy Grealy, too. Appearance, no matter what it is, doesn’t stop us from entering an emotionally appealing character.

Contrariwise, in an early draft of A Tale of Two Castles I gave Elodie a big nose. My editor asked me to take the nose out and I did. She felt it would be off-putting to the reader. And maybe she was right. Unlike Aza’s ugliness in Fairest, Elodie’s nose had nothing to do with her story. Not, I hasten to say, that a big nose is ugly. It’s a strong feature, which is what I wanted for Elodie.

What I don’t care for is a description of the main character that’s plopped into a first chapter because the author feels it has to be there. So the main is made to look in a mirror. In first person she’s forced to assess herself. In third, we’re just told what she sees.

I don’t think there’s a rush. You can get to it in a later chapter and wait for a spot where the description belongs. I’m proud of the way I did it in A Tale of Two Castles. Elodie is considering buying a cap from a mending mistress, who tells her ingratiatingly that she’s pretty. And she thinks:

    I wished I could subtract her lie from the price of the cap. I wasn’t pretty.  My eyes were too big, my eyebrows too thick, my mouth too wide, my jaw too pronounced.  But if you were in an audience, even standing behind the benches, far from the mansion stage, you would still be able to make out my features.

That’s it. I drop in a little earlier that she’s tall for her age. We don’t have to include a great deal of detail if the story doesn’t call for it. In Fairest, which does call for it, Aza’s brother first calls attention to her looks by calling her ugly, and she often thinks about her appearance, so the reader can visualize her clearly and see her the way I want her to be seen. But in many stories, we can give a few hints and let the reader fill in the rest.

In both examples from my books, a comment by another character introduces the description. You can use this technique too. For instance, Neil, not known for his tact, could tell Marisa she resembles a kindergartner’s stick figure drawing. Warren could pipe in, “Yeah, and your hair looks like you were electrocuted.” Kind Tomasina might say, “I wish I had curly hair, and I’d die for hazel eyes.” That’s probably enough.

But there are other ways. In The Wish the hook is simple. Wilma thinks about her name, describes herself in thoughts as looking like a Wilma, then goes on to explain what she means by that. In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, an old photograph leads into the description. You can use action. A character can be especially suited or not suited for an activity, like a sport or a role in a play, by virtue of his looks.

As a reader, I rarely think about the main character’s description once it’s given. I’m inside him, peering out, remembering how he looks only when the subject comes up in thoughts, action, or dialogue.

A few prompts:

•    Look at a few of your favorite books and notice how the author handled introducing the main character’s appearance and how detailed or sketchy these descriptions are. Then revisit some of your own old stories and think about how you did it. If you decide you might have been more inventive and you’re in a revising mood, try a new way or more than one.

•    Leonard is at a Halloween party dressed in a spacesuit. Without removing a bit of his costume, find a way to describe him. Find another way. And another.

•    Carlie Werme, Tony Foote, and Blair Bratt are each teased unmercifully by their classmates about their names, and each responds differently to the teasing. Write a scene for each one, showing how he or she reacts. If you like, bring them together as an alliance and write what happens. Write the first meeting of their club and cause an argument to break out. Show how each one argues. Keep going. See what happens when they confront their tormentors as a group, but don’t let their individuality get lost in their united front.

Have fun and save what you write!

Writerly Thoughts

This is my first blog ever, and fear of the blank blog is as bad as fear of the blank page. For my blogging life, I intend to post once a week, and I will probably blog mostly about writing, but I don’t know that for sure. I’ll see how it shapes up. If you are reading this, I would welcome a post to tell me what you’re interested in reading from me.

Right now and for a long time to come, I’m working on a new book and having to introduce new characters and thinking in particular about describing them physically. If I try to do this only from my imagination, the result isn’t very interesting. I think about size of features, eye color, hair color. It’s like thinking about houses. If I picture houses mentally, I think, wood or brick or stone or artificial siding, tin roof or shingle, ranch or colonial. But if I drive around and look at houses, I have much more information.

Same with people. Looking at them helps. But I don’t like to stare. So I look at photographs and portrait art. For example, when I wrote The Wish, I wanted the main male character not to be either classically handsome or hideous. I went to my high school yearbook (from yikes! 1964) and paged through it, as I am doing right this minute. And there is so much to say. You – and I – may not want to go into this much detail, but the shape of every upper lip is different, and the space between lip and nose is different. In some faces the width or narrowness of the chin determines the curve of the lips. In other faces, lip shape and chin shape have nothing to do with each other. When I did this for The Wish, I found a boy whose eyebrows met over his nose, forming a unibrow. Now, I went to a huge New York City high school, and I didn’t know this boy or how his eyebrow may have ruined his childhood or not affected it at all. I lifted it off his face and gave it to Jared, and that unibrow helped pull the plot along.

For the new book, I looked at drawings by early sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Durer, and found a profile view of a youngish man with a plump face, uplifted eyebrows under small mounds of flesh, as if he might sprout horns, a flat nose with two bumps, small lips, several descending chins, the topmost of which stuck out almost as far as the tip of his nose. I couldn’t possibly have made him up out of my imagination.

Of course, when you’re looking for physical description, you probably want a face and a body to go with the character. This Durer guy doesn’t have a face I’d give to a poet. It’s a shrewd face. I bet he can add a long string of dollars and cents in his mind. I bet he can size up a person in a second. He could be a merchant or a shady character who lives by his wits.

If you’d like to use this post as a writing exercise, look at photographs and portraits – but not of models and movie stars, no strictly gorgeous people. Find one that interests you. Describe the character that might belong to the body – or go against type and describe a personality that seems accidentally planted there. Write a story about him or her. As I say in my book, Writing Magic, have fun, and save what you write.