Saturday, April 10, 2010
Technical Topics: Describing Characters
I want to be fairly specific about physical description. I find the process of giving eye color, hair color, skin type and so on, technically useful, rather than an annoying necessity.
I'm fortunate enough to use two major POVs, (Yeah!) so I can describe each character through the eyes of the other. That also means I give an interpretation of the physical traits, not just the literal list. (Two lips, indifferent red . . .)
It's interpretation that's interesting, innit?
(you don't have to read this. I get to the actual point somewhere down below the excerpt.)
They emerged. A tall man, dressed like a prosperous tradesman
but brown as a farmer, strode ahead. His servant boy lagged
behind, struggling with a pair of donkeys.
The big man stopped in the center of the courtyard and
held easily in check.
I do not like this at all.
He carried no sign to say he was Crow’s messenger. A
red ribbon with a knot in it, any bit of red cloth, knotted,
would be enough. He was only a stranger in her domain,
pointless and useless to her.
You have no business here. Go away.
He did not, of course. He set his hat back, low over his
forehead, and flipped the collar of his coat up. He turned
slowly, taking in the dairy house and the coach house,
working his way around. At this distance, she couldn’t
make out his features. Weak, gray light slid across his face,
drawing a suggestion of high, flat cheekbones, a jaw dark
with stubble, a jutting nose. His hair was brown and hung raggedly on his neck.
If he had inhabited a fairy tale he would have been the giant, not the prince. Giants are more chancy to deal with than princes.
This is a looong passage to get maybe thirty words of actual character description across.
But then, that's not what I'm doing.
I'm not inserting Doyle's description in the way you fit backstory in -- thinking of it as three-day old fish and deploring it.
Here, the personal description is one of the tools at hand. It's actively useful for what I want to accomplish.
The snippet is not 'about' sharing hair color and clothing detail with the reader. It's 'about' Maggie's internals. About her emotional reaction to seeing Will Doyle. I use the huge physicality of William to explain Maggie's first judgement of his nature (-- nervous --) and to show her uncertainty about her situation.
Physical description, once we tamp it down inside some character POV, reveals both characters. It 'adds value' to otherwise neutral descriptive factoids. Being in POV assigns emotion to the human form.
'Brown hair' is just hair.
'Raggedly cut brown hair' is still just hair, though we know more about it now.
But in the eyes of a woman looking over a large stranger, that 'ragged cut' hair becomes a little threatening. Now, ragged hair has an emotional content.
We need such human detail to make deep POV realistic. It's natural to notice what people look like. This is normal focus.
People -- fictional people too -- are interested in and moved by the way other people look. That's a good reason to describe our characters. And when we put human description into deep POV, instead of into narrative or dialog, we show the natural engagement of one character with the physical being of another. We're not just telling about it.
So, not so much the telling in this passage --
Doyle appreciated a fine breast as much as the next man, but he hadn't meant to grab hold of this one.
But more the demonstation of action and internals. The showing of--
Fine pair of breasts she had. White as split almonds.
Round as peaches. The nipples peeked out, since the fichu
wasn’t doing its job. A pair of dark little roses, pulled up
into buds. Tasty looking. And if he got any closer he could
put his mouth down and lick them.
That’s going to reassure her—you slavering at her tits.
Human visuals, placed in character POV, draw us into the internals, become an easy, natural part of the action, and, (it's hoped,) make everything more interesting to read.
Look at the Doyle factoids in the long extract up top. They could be set in straight narrative:
William Doyle was tall and broadly, strongly built. He wore
the wool coat, heavy breeches and tall boots of a prosperous
tradesman. Tanned skin covered his high, flat cheekbones,
jutting nose, and a jaw harsh with subble. His hair was brown
and hung raggedly on his neck.
And isn't that economical but bland? Not heaping amounts of savor and zing. We see what William is, but we don't see why a detail is important. His hair, face, and clothing are without context.
And . . . we don't get nudged and slapped upside the head by cool relationship stuff.
I'm lucky to be writing Romance. I can plot the First Meeting tight to the opening. I can delay physical description of the characters till I crawl into the right POV.
This frees me from the pesky -- 'How do I tell the reader the heroine is blond?' problem.
Such a relief.
bike photo by studiocurve