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Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Characters' appearance

Hello, my name is Kit Whitfield. I'm a writer who lives in South London. I have straight, silky hair, falling down to my shoulders in deep copper drifts. My skin is pale, and my hazel green eyes change colour according to the light. My lips tend to part, two pink anemones over charmingly crooked teeth.

Well, you see, all of this is reasonably accurate. I do have red shoulder-length hair, hazel green eyes, fair skin, and teeth that are reasonably straight (but I suspect that some Americans are reading this blog and there are masterpieces of Modernist architecture that look crooked next to an all-American smile). But it's a bit of a weird way to introduce myself, isn't it?

Yet somehow, a fair number of fictional characters do just that.

Such descriptions tend to dwell on the attractiveness of the characters' appearance, either traditional or non-traditional but still charming, and this is a warning bell right there. Unless a character is terribly vain, in which case we're looking at an unreliable narrator, who talks about themselves that way? Flattering self-descriptions create a horrible viewpoint lurch, because what they do is leap outside the character's head, and start looking at the character through what the author hopes will be the admiring eyes of the reader. Rather than letting the reader work out what the character looks like, or even get on with the story and assume that appearance isn't the first thing you need to know about someone - perish the thought, the situation they're in might be more interesting than their face - the writer makes a swift foray into the reader's viewpoint, firmly establishing that the character looks a certain way.

Of course, physical appearance is the first thing you notice when you meet someone. But when we're talking about first-person narrators, we're not exactly meeting them. In effect, we've woken up in their heads one morning - and the first thing you see when you wake up is not your own face. You see your bedroom ceiling, the face of your lover, or possibly the edge of a gutter and two hairy thugs standing over you and going through your pockets, if it's not your lucky morning. In any of those circumstances, whether you're blonde or brunette is not the most important question.

This extends beyond first-person narratives to third-person-single-viewpoint narratives. When an ominscient narrator introduces a character, external description is fine; Middlemarch begins with a prolonged description of Dorothea that is an incidental character sketch. But if you're writing a book where your heroine Rachel does this and does that, and we never see a scene that Rachel isn't present at, and everything is viewed as 'Rachel saw such-and-such' (with possibly the odd view into somebody else's head, which it's time you cleared up), then in effect, Rachel is occupying the first-person slot. We can't see her from the outside, because we're inside her head.

So what is a good way to present a character's appearance? Well, the first thing to do is ask yourself if it actually matters. Not just matters to you because you personally see the character as having dark curly hair and brown eyes, but matters to the story. It can do. The only female detective in a mean-streets squad is going to be judged on her attractiveness by most of her colleagues, so the fact that she's blonde and may be mistaken for a bimbo, or has mousy-coloured hair that makes people assume she's meek and dull, will have an effect on how people behave towards her. A man who's six foot seven will probably get more deference than a man of five foot two, and will possibly have developed a carefully gentle personality so as not to make people feel threatened. A woman whose body weight is twice what the doctor thinks it should be will be profoundly self-conscious and also have more difficulty moving around quickly.

But all of these examples are things that you can show in other ways. They're things that can be seen and commented on by other characters because they actually would draw comment, rather than just because the writer wants to make sure everyone knows what their hero looks like, or they're things that would affect a character's behaviour and so be factored into their thoughts when they make decisions. There's no need to go into detail the minute the story starts.

As a side-note, 'drawing comment' doesn't mean sneaking the observations you can't have a character say about themselves into the mouths of other characters. Nobody says 'her skin is as golden as honey and looks every bit as tempting', I don't care how nice the image sounds.

Another way we can find out things about a character's appearance is at points where they see themselves. If a woman with long hair rests her head on her arms, the chances are that some of the hair will fall over her eyes, at which point she will notice what colour it is, for instance. The use of mirrors is one to be wary of, though, as it's incredibly easy to turn it into a cheat. If a character checks himself in the mirror and thinks, 'I think I'll wear this jumper so my date doesn't see how weedy-chested I am,' that's relevant to the story, but if he looks in the mirror and thinks, 'Hmm, I have brown hair and grey eyes, I'm five foot ten but very thin and feeble-looking,' then the reader is going to snag on it, because nobody catalogues themselves that way.

(Unless, of course, the character has serious body issues. In which case, they're likely to keep track of themselves throughout the story, with regular weigh-ins, checks to see if the hairstyle needs adjustment, changes of clothes, manicures on the run or whatever else their particular obsession involves. Again, appearance is related to personality and personality is expressed through behaviour.)

Scientists talk about the 'halo effect': the fact that attractive people tend to be considered nicer, cleverer, more competent, and generally get a more positive spin put on their behaviour than unattractive ones. This effect, however, doesn't exactly translate into writing. The writer may be able to picture the character precisely, but the reader can't actually see them. All they get is the words on the page. A handsome face may make a movie character seem deeper than the script actually portrays them as being, but in fiction, the physical description is just more words. In which case, when you describe the character's looks, you don't get a 'Mm, that's a nice-looking person', you get 'why are you telling me this?'

And if you can think of a good reason, then you're fine. But if not, then maybe we don't need to hear about that hair colour or waist measurement at all.

Eh, why bother trying to sound clever, I'll just gush now and get it out of the way.

I love your blog and I love your book. Granted, I'm only up to around chapter three or so, but I've only just heard of you and had to wait a while for my copy from Amazon.uk to arrive.

The nice thing is that you're able to present all this advice in such a way that it remains encouraging and actually inspires one to go out and write, rather than listing so many don't-do-thisses that it feels like an excercise in futility to even pick up a pen or sign off the Internet and work.

But does all this blogging interefere with your writing time? (It would mine, I've turned inertia into a fine art.) I do hope you're planning more books.

Okay, done now. Next time I'll be terse and professional. If I remember to.

(I have a sinking suspicion this is going to post about four time -- having browser trouble...Apologies in advance.)
Similar to the mirror is having a person take a drink or splash water on their face and then describe it from the reflection. I try to work little details in as the story goes, though in the one I'm working on (my first attempt at a first-person POV) the protag takes a second to set the reader straight on his appearance, mainly because of another character's insulting comments. We'll see if that works.
Why thank you, Camille! Glad to cyber-meet you.

Well, I am working on a second book at the moment; it's due for delivery to publishers at the end of this year, which I'm keeping my fingers crossed about - I'm rotten at anticipating how long these projects will take me. Hopefully the blog doesn't damage the writing time; I tend to write several posts in a go when I've got some ideas and am stuck writing, then feed them out gradually...

And delighted you like the blog! Hope you keep commenting; I work from home and it's nice to have virtual company.

Hi Josh. Insulting comments sound good and relevant to me...
What I most dislike in some first-person narratives is that it can take pages and pages and pages to find out the sex of the character. The author knows this important datum, but often doesn't see fit to pass it on to the readers. And so I develop an idea of the character with the sex I've assigned...which is fine if I get it right. If not, well, some readjustment is required :). So I'd say some details about your character are essential!
Hmm, I can see that could be confusing! But you can do sex easily enough: character names are a good start. Or a reference to what they're wearing. Or a passing beggar saying 'Hey mister/lady, you got any spare change?'... You're right, though, you do need to know who you're listening to. Whether eyes are blue or green isn't essential to someone's personality, but things like gender are. It's good to work out what's important.
Actually, for some reason, I really don't mind being surprised by a character's gender later in the narrative -- although I will probably go back and look for clues. Depending on the genre (and intent), I suppose, I look at it as a challenge of my assumptions, and I'm interested to see what it is that triggered them.

It's different, though, if it's done on purpose, than if the writer was just careless.

I'm a copyeditor (though that may not show up online. I refuse to be that picky -- ever since the day I found myself correcting the comma usage on my facial soap). All that to say, another drawback I'm noticing more and more is that descriptions of people, when used just to establish how gorgeous they are, tend to make them all completely interchangeable. Especially with non-white characters, where there's less variety of hair and eye color to use as shorthand. (I recently did one where all the men were pretty much varying shades of "chocolatey Nubian perfection," and the only real difference among them was how much over six feet tall they were. It was... tedious. I wound up having to flag repetitions of the word "chocolatey," which I don't, usually. Don't mess with people's descriptions.)

I want to start a prize or something for writers who describe minorities effectively. Holly Black gets one. Neil Gaiman as well. (Why is it always harder to think up positive examples than negative ones?) MINORITY writers who still do it poorly get a smack. (I'm using the word "minority" from a U.S. standpoint.)

I've veered off-topic a little, there.
It can be good to have someone keep an eye on your descriptions of other races; the fact that my copyeditor is black and I'm white was really useful in hearing her perspective on how I described the black characters in Bareback, and I did end up tweaking a bit. I'd just mentioned somebody was black, and she said it sounded a bit generic, so I changed it - I think I described her skin as peachstone-brown, which at least didn't involve chocolate. (Of course, that wasn't the only reason I was happy she copy-edited me; mostly it was good because she's a very intelligent and agreeable woman.)

I tend to find that I don't mind at all if someone tells me I've described something badly - I can just go back and fix it - but I get very agitated if somebody changes something fait accompli. To a very pernickety extent; I get cross if someone changes a comma to a colon and pace around muttering, 'I meant it to be a comma, the rhthym's all wrong if it isn't a comma!' Then I write a polite 'stet' and don't say anything, because there's no need to be unpleasant. I used to copy edit as well, so I do know how difficult it can be - I always marvel at copy editors' concentration!
As an afterthought, though, sometimes I picture characters as this race or that and just don't mention it, because it's not something the narrative voice particularly clocks. In those cases, I tend to use culturally specific names and let the reader spot it for themselves; the lawyer Adnan Franklin in Bareback, for example, I pictured as mixed race, which was reflected in his Asian forename and English surname, but I don't think I ever mentioned it as such. If you've only got a sentence or so to describe someone, going on about their race can feel like you think it's the most important thing about them, when actually their manner and bearing, voice, dress and so on are much better character indicators.

Depends on what your narrator would notice, of course. Lola divides people into nons and lycos, which tends to override other signifiers; if she was a white supremacist or something, she'd notice race a lot more...
Pacing and muttering...ah yes.
I love your blog, and would like to be able to follow it in my feed aggregator. Could you please turn on syndication?
You can turn on syndication via Settings -> Site Feed. Indicate Full or Short to turn on feed.
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