In everyday conversation, when someone asks you to describe someone you know, you probably do not say, “She has a penetrating gaze, pale, delicate fingers, and a regal posture.” What do you say?
You probably tell whether a person is short or tall, young or old, skinny or overweight. You might tell the color and length of their hair and their eye color.
All of it usually adds up to an answer to the question, “Are they hot?” Particularly if the person in question is a girl, a question likely to come up is, “Is she pretty?”
What this says about our culture is a subject for another blog post. The point I want to make is that, in writing fiction, the purpose of character descriptions is different than the conversational goal of determining if someone is good-looking or not.
That is not to say beauty should never be mentioned, especially if a character uses the power of beauty to drive the story forward, but describing a person as attractive is a means to an end, not an end in itself – and this was confusing to me as a child when all of my female characters looked like super-models as I indulged fantasies of being the svelte, flaxen-haired creatures I described. In general, I described characters as having long or short hair, blue eyes or brown eyes. They were not people; they were dolls, and my descriptions were dull.
So, if the point of character descriptions is not to indicate attractiveness, what is it?
As with many questions about writing, there is more than one legitimate answer. But generally speaking, the goal of character descriptions is to provide subtle clues to how a character has behaved in the past and how she is likely to behave in the future. In particular, how is she likely to behave if confronted with a crisis?
To offer an analogy taken from biology, when you look at a lion at rest, his physical form still provides clues to his function. He has sharp claws that are able to rend the flesh of his prey, sharp eyes that can spot moving quarry, and sharp teeth optimized for tearing flesh. He also has powerful legs designed for chasing fast prey.
If I am informed enough to interpret the clues, his physical appearance alone tells me what he has probably done in the past and what he is likely to do in the future; that is, he is a formidable and efficient killing machine.
If his ear is torn, that tells me even more about his past. I might not know exactly how he lost part of his ear, but the detail shows me he has experienced trauma and makes me wonder what it was. The detail of the torn ear reveals past experiences and actions that presage future action.
Good character descriptions do the same. We describe “form” to give readers a clue to how a character will function in the story.
The most telling descriptions indicate choices a character makes, some of them unconscious like posture or habitual gestures and others that indicate conscious preferences, such as style of dress.
You can use visual details to provide subtle hints that address relevant questions: In a crisis, will my character behave impulsively or thoughtfully? Will he plunge into danger or will he retreat? Is he prone to aggression or will he opt for diplomacy? Is he reckless or is he prudent?
Giving clues to future action through character descriptions is an art, and it is part of what makes writing so challenging. Doing it well requires consciously observing real people and noticing their postures, facial lineaments, habitual expressions, styles of dress, and manner of walking; these are some of the many ways characters communicate personality and hint at past experiences that may have shaped them.
How do these qualities affect how readers perceive a character? Sometimes it is self-evident. A character who constantly slouches is not the same character as one who holds herself upright at all times. Slouching as a general rule suggests laziness. Straight posture indicates confidence and strength of will, although, given human complexity, there are bound to be exceptions.
Likewise, a character who always wears a black turtleneck is not the same character as someone who typically wears pink, frilly, lacy outfits. A character who piles on jewelry is not the same character as one who wears no jewelry.
Showing personality traits through description fulfills another important story purpose. It individualizes characters; it makes a character distinct in the mind of the readers, setting her apart from all the other characters. Facial tics, a habit of drumming fingers on a hard surface, a tendency to munch ice cubes whole, a twitching eyelid, a habit of wearing only green clothing are all examples.
Individualizing characters is a worthy goal in itself. Distinguishing details make characters easy for readers to imagine and remember. They breathe life into a character, because so many people in real life have quirks, unusual mannerisms, or irritating habits that set them apart.
However, if these traits also presage future actions, so much the better; in that case, you are accomplishing two goals at once. For example, a character who wears loads of jewelry may be a status seeker, someone who primarily wants to be seen and admired. There are other reasons someone might wear a lot of jewelry, so supporting clues will be needed to establish a status-seeking tendency such as a habit of disparaging the poor.
Combined with other relevant clues, heavy jewelry indicates a motive, which creates expectations about how a character will behave.
Why does creating expectations matter? Because an expectant reader is not a passive reader; a reader who feels like he knows a character well enough to make predictions is fully engaged; he will want to stick around to see if his predictions come true.
An excellent example of creating expectations is the portrayal of the athlete Phineas in the novel A Separate Peace as he contemplates jumping from a dangerously tall tree.
“What I like best about this tree,” he said in that voice of his, the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist’s eyes, “what I like is that it’s such a cinch!” He opened his green eyes wider and gave us his maniac look, and only the smirk on his wide mouth with its droll, slightly protruding upper lip reassured us that he wasn’t completely goofy.”
The “maniac look” shows a reckless attraction to danger, even though he is not clinically insane; his hypnotic voice indicates his power to influence others. Both presage the ultimately fatal accident around which the who story pivots.
There is a final point I should mention: If you introduce a character with a physical description, make sure it carries over into future scenes where the character is active. If you tell the reader that a character has facial tics during moments of stress, be sure to include facial tics when you present your character acting in a stressful situation. If you go into detail about a character having stormy, restless blue-grey eyes, return to this detail. Carry it over into future scenes. It is not necessary to mention it every time, but if you never mention it again, observant readers will sense a discontinuity; thus, the character will seem fragmented and unreal.
For a character to be recognizable and believable, she must be consistent. This means there needs to be continuity between what the writer tells the readers and the actions that follow. This is because static descriptions are not really static. Like sleeping lions, they are potentially dynamic.
They show a character poised for action. Physical descriptions reveal a form that predicts a function, no less than the dagger-like teeth of a lion predicts danger for its prey – as miles from its den, a lamb is sleeping, unaware that its fate is bound to another far away.
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