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!


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.