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.
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 2B: Describing People Who Are Not Your Narrator
As with all descriptions, it is important that this one comes naturally. What are the circumstances in which your narrator delivers the description? Are they chatting to their friend, describing a guy they met yesterday? Are they being saved from drowning by a member of the rescue services? The time and space in which the description happens defines its delivery. So does the mental state of your narrator. And, to a degree, the importance of the person they are describing. And how familiar they are with that person. And… Tell you what, let me try and take it in points.
1) First of all, see what I said about describing the narrator, and use as appropriate. Those points still apply.
2) Mental state of Narrator.
When your narrator encounters another character you need to describe, put yourself in the narrator’s shoes. How are they feeling? Is Narrator happy and more likely to comment on something they like about Character’s appearance? Is Narrator so nervous and/or focused on the task at hand that they won’t remember anything about Character’s looks after they’re done interacting with them, because everything is a blur? Or is Narrator so annoyed that any mannerism of Character, whether innocuous or genuinely irksome, is going to earn a scathing remark?
3) Relationship with Character.
Similarly to the point above, the way Narrator feels about Character will color their perception and description of them. Remember that your narrator doesn’t have to be 100% reliable – in fact, they are highly unlikely to be, because no-one is. Depending on Narrator’s perception of Character, the description doesn’t need to be objective, it doesn’t even have to be NICE. As a writer, you’re telling a story through your narrator’s eyes, and you are delivering more than facts – you are delivering feelings. Think of someone you like, and describe the way they look, they talk, they smile. Then think of someone you strongly dislike, and note what images they bring to your mind, instead. With that in mind, pull up a photograph of a random person, and try describing them in positive terms, then in negative ones. You’ll be surprised how easily ‘sparkly blue eyes’ can become ‘a cold, icy blue’, how quickly the same haircut and clothes can move from pretentious to stylish, how the same smile can be ‘warm, lighting up the entire room’ or ‘plastic, not touching the eyes’.
For a simple, yet very effective, example of descriptions with a positive and negative twist (not to mention a good example of patriarchy at work), check out this Pantene commercial below.
4) Absolute vs relative terms.
As humans, we rarely describe things and people in absolute, objective terms – unless that is required by the circumstances (police report, medical history, witness statement, etc.). Even if you know you are six feet tall, when you meet a person of about your height, you will think of them as ‘person of about your height’ first, ‘six-feet tall person’ second. (On the other hand, if your narrator is shorter or taller than average, they are more likely to comment on other people’s height relative to their own, with possible exaggeration – especially if they have additional feelings about their height. Imagine a 6’5 guy, who is insecure about being taller than everyone else, liking someone shorter, and always describing them as petite – even if, objectively, they are, let’s say, 5’11.)
5) Details and highlights.
When you get too carried away painting loose watercolors of your characters, you face a danger of them having zero memorability in the end. This is where you can play with details. And by that, I don’t mean you writing a detailed description of someone – but instead, pick out one or two specific details, things that are very particular for someone you’re describing – whether it’s a part of their appearance, a mannerism, an item they have, an article of clothing, etc.
Right this moment, I thought back to a crime/romance story I read ages ago, and tried to remember what Lidiya, the female lead looked like. The first things that came to mind were the details that the male lead noticed about her, or, more specifically, her hands. “Lots of rings, but no manicures. Or is that a special kind of manicures that looks like no manicures?”. From elsewhere in the book, I remember she had dark hair. And here she is, in my head.
By the way, here’s some wisdom on appearances courtesy of Moist von Lipwig, a master con artist and a beloved character from Going Postal by the recently-deceased and even more beloved Sir Terry Pratchett:
“People had difficulty describing him. He was . . . he was ‘about’. He was about twenty, or about thirty. On Watch reports across the continent he was anywhere between, oh, about six feet two inches and five feet nine inches tall, hair all shades from mid-brown to blond, and his lack of distinguishing features included his entire face. He was about . . . average. What people remembered was the furniture, things like spectacles and moustaches, so he always carried a selection of both. They remembered names and mannerisms, too. He had hundreds of those. ”
6) Time and space.
Our brain doesn’t take in every detail about someone’s appearance right away. In fact, the first thing it tends to do upon noticing someone is paint the already-mentioned loose watercolor of them – just as the reader’s brain will do when they read your description. The longer we spend looking at someone, the more details we’ll notice, and we will do so gradually.
For an example of a masterful use of time and space to pace a description, I’ll refer you to a scene from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, a book I read and loved to pieced recently. In the scene I have in mind, the main character, Cath, rushes to a hospital where her sister has been taken for an emergency. In the waiting room, she runs into her long-estranged mother, who Cath hasn’t seen for over ten years. You’d expect a deluge of description at this point – but the first thing Cath describes Laura, the mother, as is “a blond woman.”
Half a page later, after Cath answers the doctor’s questions and has some room to breathe, sit back and watch her mother again, Laura becomes “this upset blond woman with tired eyes and really expensive jeans”. They exchange a few words, and then Cath comments (to herself) about Laura’s haircut and the clothes she’s wearing. And on the next page, after Laura says something that upsets Cath, Cath looks at her again – and now a deluge of description comes crashing in. But it’s not the woman she’s seeing right now that Cath is describing, but rather, her mother as she remembers her.
It was like looking at nobody at all.
And then it was like looking at the person you expected to be comforting you when you woke up from a nightmare.
[…] …she could see her mom, in perfect focus, sitting on the other side of their dining room table. She was laughing at something that Wren had said – so Wren kept saying it, and their mom kept laughing. She laughed through her nose. Her hair was dark, and she tucked Sharpies into her ponytail, and she could draw anything. A flower. A seahorse. A unicorn. And when she was irritated, she snapped at them. Snapped her fingers. Snap, snap, snap, while she was talking on the phone. Stern eyebrows, bared teeth. “Shhh.” She was in the bedroom with their dad, shouting. She was at the zoo, helping Wren chase a peacock. She was rolling out dough for gingerbread cookies. She was on the phone, snapping. She was in the bedroom, yelling. She was standing on the porch, pushing Cath’s hair behind her ears again and again, stroking her cheek with a long, flat thumb, and making promises she wasn’t going to keep.
I brought this scene up to demonstrate pacing, but now that it’s sitting in front of me, I realize that it’s a perfect example for every point I’ve made before. The mental state of the narrator. The relationship and history she has with her mother. The prevalence of details and mannerisms over any simple physical descriptions.
It’s not a description you give to the police when filling out a missing person report. It’s not a description you give when a therapist asks about your mother. It’s not even a way to answer a friend’s casual question of, ‘what’s your mom like?’
It’s a description that’s intensely personal, that doesn’t paint the reader a picture as much as it puts the reader INTO it, letting them not so much see the person, but experience them. Them, and everything that comes with them – the history, the hopes, the laughter, the lies, the loss, and the gingerbread cookies. And that’s what makes it so brilliant, I think. If I can say anything in summary, it would be this.
When given choice: tell the reader what someone looks like, or mention that they liked to stick Sharpies in their ponytail… go for the Sharpies.