Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seeing is Believing: Describing the Character

People communicate in symbols. The words we use. The metaphors we refer toward. We portray images of ourselves using expectations and wear our hair and clothing according to certain standards that can reflect the kind of person we want to be seen as (which isn't necessarily the same as who we are). Yet when it comes to describing our characters, many of us consider this a simple and prosaic process of simply recording basic details. At best we do it from the perspective and biases of the protagonist. Very rarely do we give thought to how much we can explore about the character themselves in so few words.

Which'd be the difference between 'The
tall, slender, blonde woman wore a red evening gown', 'The woman I wanted was the tall, slim blond in the red evening gown', and 'The dazzling red evening gown hugged the blonde woman's lovely curves in all the right places'.

Other than the fact that the third one is just better written (in my opinion), it also packs a lot more information within it. The first, bleh. Just the facts, ma'am. It's honestly neither here nor there. The second one is good enough. Tells us a lot about what's on the protagonist's mind and, depending on the context, a bit about his personality. Whether it's a professionally detached line from a business-like cop or a sleazy line from a bachelor on the prowl, it says something about him. Says little about her. In the last example, we know the evening gown is a dazzling red and is sculpted to her features just right suggests a woman who both wants to be noticed in a particular way and has the money to pay for a tailored dress. The image also invokes a woman with confidence and class - the assets are revealed by tight clothing but skin hugging clothing doesn't necessarily suggest a lot of bare skin.

On another note, every one of those lines would also fit in a hard-boiled private detective novel. The third one most of all. So I guess you can even put across genre in your character descriptions.

These are all good reasons to avoid super purple-prose in your character descriptions. At the very least, the reader will presume that the point of view character thinks like that, and how many people can empathize with someone who describes themselves as:

'Jacinta's azure eyes flashed like the sun off the ocean as she brushed several stands of hair as glossy black as a raven wing back from a porcelain cheek'.

It just comes off as hopelessly narcissistic!

So yes, in the design phase of your characters, think about why they look how they do. What are they trying to prove about themselves? What are they trying to hide? It isn't necessarily the style of the clothes that tell the most about them. Someone with ironed on creases suggests a very different personality to someone with grass stains on their knees or dirt on their back. In the editing phase, just try to make sure each one of the character descriptions are as evocative of as many things as they can be with as few words as possible.

There ... that isn't so hard, is it?

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