Cried But Did The Thing Anyway is blog by Maria Stanislav, writer of relative truth and speculative fiction, nightowl extraordinaire, and rock music aficionado. You can read the whole damn thing here, or check out select pieces, like Why Perfectionism Is Bad, Why Breaks Are Important, and Why The Hell Am I Doing This Writing Thing, Anyway.
Le Gasp! Can it be? Is this fickle Stanislav character going to, for the first time in forever, keep her promise and make a post she promised the week before? Well, you’d better hold on to your hats, non-believers, for here it comes:
Writing Descriptions, Part 2: Describing People!
I honestly don’t know whether describing characters is easier or trickier than describing settings, but the main problem is essentially the same. On one hand, you want to immerse the reader in your world and make sure they get an accurate picture of the people you dreamed up (most of this post is applicable to fiction more than non-fiction/journalism). On the other, you don’t want to bore people with paragraphs about eyes like limpid pools of blue, do you?
But du-u-ude, wasn’t it YOU who said, just the other week, that people are WAY more important than backdrops? So why can’t I tell the people EVERY DETAIL about my beloved protags, antags, deuterags and tritags? And their little dog, too?
I answer. Because (in this instance) you’re a writer of fiction in prose. Not a witness making a statement for facial composition. Not a concept designer for a video game. Not even a comic book writer, who might want to give their artist highly detailed character description. But a STORYTELLER. And while, like I indeed said, people are more important than backdrops, things they did, said, changed, broke, killed, felt, accepted, refused, failed or saved will, in turn, always be more important than the color of their hair and the shape of their shoes.
But du-u-ude, I’ve put So Much Freakin Thought in the appearance, style, and mannerisms of my characters…
And none of that thought will go to waste, I promise you. Are you familiar with the iceberg theory? According to Ernest Hemingway, only a fraction of your knowledge about your characters (narrator included) will make it to the page, but it’s the unseen part, the underwater part, the facts that stay in your mind and in your notes, that give your writing bulk and make characters feel real.
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks and see what we can do to put that iceberg tip on the page with some grace. I want to start with, arguably, the trickiest trick of them all.
Describing the narrator
Describing the narrator is a right pain in the butt, particularly when you’re writing first-person or third-person-limited (which, written well, is basically first-person with changed pronouns). If you have to ask why, ask yourself – how often do you find yourself describing yourself while telling someone a story about what happened to you? Do you say, ‘I’m five foot ten, with dark brown hair reaching down to my waist’ when you meet a friend for coffee? Do you remark on the shape of your eyes when telling your spouse about your day? Do you describe your every outfit in minute detail when talking to your therapist?
(If your answer is ‘yes’ –
damn, how do you manage to still have any friends at all? please accept my congratulations, you are surrounded by wonderful, loving, PATIENT people.)
Think back to the times when you did go out of your way to describe your appearance in a conversation…
I had the most amazing prom dress – pale peach, with black lace around the shoulders. And the shoes, oh god, the days I spent looking for those black heels, it was like every shop in town signed a pact to stop stocking anything above size six.
He’d been at Mike’s for ten minutes or less so far, and he spent every one of those minutes regretting the fact that he hadn’t stopped to change. In a room full of jeans, jerseys, and tank tops, his suit and tie made him look – and feel – like a high school chaperone.
“I’m sorry,” the casting director told me with a sympathetic smile. “We’re currently looking for a blonde weather girl, and our stylist doesn’t do wigs.”
I walked out of the studio, cursing to myself and wishing to go back in time three days, so I could tell my hairdresser where she could stuff her suggestions of ‘a lovely brunette shade that’d really freshen me up.’
None of the above paragraphs are The New York Times bestseller material, but they all share the same thing – a focus on appearance that is, in the given situation, relevant for discussion. The first narrator is excited about a special occasion; the second is forced to notice his outfit because of the stark contrast with his surroundings; and for the third one, a new hair color just cost her a job opportunity.
Note that even with the description-with-relevance, we only get to find out small snippets of information about each narrator. The first one wears shoes size 7 or bigger (which, possibly, makes her pretty tall). The second one works in an office – maybe; if we read further, we could find out he came to Mike’s straight from a job interview or other formal function that required a suit and tie. The third narrator is a natural blonde who recently dyed her hair dark.
Is any of that enough to paint a portrait? No. But there is enough for a loose watercolor. Tall girl excited about a prom. Man in a suit at a party. Freshly-dark-haired young woman looking for a job on TV. And, speaking as a reader, I can tell you that even if you describe your narrator in great detail right off the bat, it’s the watercolor the readers will be following through the book, filling in the blanks with your help or without.
Consider this. In the first chapter of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the main character called Shadow is introduced as follows: “Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.” Later in the chapter, we find out he’s thirty-two years old. Throughout the rest of the book, we can glean more about his appearance, but for starters, this watercolor is all we have. And it works.
So, here are things to keep in mind when describing your narrator:
1) Keep it simple, keep it real.
Your narrator is a living, breathing person – or they should read like that, at least. So if you want a description, have them describe themselves in terms of real things that they experience. Let them enjoy some parts of their looks and despise some others, let them hate the shape of their fingernails but revel in the thickness of their eyebrows. And unless you are purposefully writing them as an insufferable narcissist, stay away from ANY poetic descriptions of the self. (Getting lyrical about clothes is allowed on very special occasions, like proms, weddings, Miss Universe pageants, and any other situations where the outfit is A Big Deal.)
That means no eyes like the summer sky, but yes to eyes with smudged makeup, yes to eyes bloodshot after an all-nighter studying, yes to eyes that everyone thinks is blue but are actually green behind the contact lenses worn all but 24/7 (because her sister had blue eyes, and everyone liked her better). No hair like a stream of honey. But yes to hair like a crow’s nest following a rough night, yes to hair that eats combs, yes to hair that straightens itself out after an hour and to hair that turns into a frizz ball after five seconds in the rain.
2) Use mirrors sparingly.
The oldest trick in the book is to pitch your narrator against a mirror and have them recite a run-down of their looks. They’re observing themselves, so it’s a perfect excuse to describe everything they’re seeing, right? Yeah… no. That is not to say you can’t do that. You can, but you have to be careful. Remember that we tend to only describe things that are different, unusual, somehow special.
Is this the first time your narrator sees their own reflection in a mirror, as opposed to the surface of a pond, so they marvel at how much clearer the image is? Is this the day they’re having their bandages removed after (restorative? purely cosmetic? identity-changing?) plastic surgery, and note how their feature have changed/improved/been restored to the way they remember them? Have they been imprisoned/unconscious/unaware for a while and looking in the mirror feels just weird because they realize this is the first time in months they’re seeing their own face? (Used that one myself; guilty as charged.)
3) Change is good. So is contrast.
Change in your narrator’s appearance – whether positive or negative for them – is good news for you as writer, because it’s a very valid excuse to comment on it. New hair color or haircut; clothes that don’t fit well because of gained/lost weight, growth spurt, injury, pregnancy; a new job or a new climate that requires a dressing style different from what they’re used to… use your imagination, that’s literally your job.
Contrast is also a good excuse to point things out, as seen in the case of Mr Awkward Suit At A Party, earlier in this article. Anything out of place is noticeable. Your own self being out of place is noticeable – sometimes, acutely so. Whether your narrator is pleased to be the smartest dresser in the joint, or feels they are sticking out like a sore thumb, or is the only person in the room under the age of 50, or is wondering why everyone else is wearing heels.
4) The more you take something for granted, the less often you’ll mention it
Some things you just take for granted or assume to be general knowledge. For example, if you’re writing a scene set in a place called New York, you will expect your readers to assume you mean New York City, the place with the Central Park and the Statue of Liberty, as opposed to, for example, New York, Kentucky or New York, Lincolnshire.
With this in mind, and taking the rest of my ideas into account, here’s your homework for this part of the post.
Think of five to ten different ways to let the reader know the name and sex of a first-person narrator. Post a few of them in the comments if you like.
Ponder that while staying tuned for the conclusion of this three-post series: