Yesterday we discussed how important a character’s physical appearance is or isn’t. Today I want to continue that discussion and take it to a final conclusion: that sometimes you have to stop thinking about what you’re writing and how you’re writing and just let yourself WRITE.
To start off, I think to say, “let’s talk about a character’s appearance” can be misleading. It simplifies a complex subject to a large degree.
Much more than we realize goes into the appearance of a person and the first impression he or she makes. This is also true for characters. We’re dealing with:
- gait and how someone walks
- posture and how someone holds oneself.
- clothing, both what it looks like and how it fits. Clothing can give away everything from a person’s occupation to religion, as well as income level.
- skin and skin tone. color? freckles? moles? scars?
- hair: color, length, style. straight or curly? wavy? frizzy?
- eye color
- shape of the face: cheekbones, chin, forehead. People generally have oval, heart-shaped, or circular (like me) faces.
And that’s not even touching speech: accent, dialect, tone, pitch, speed….
Character description in fiction can get tricky because there is NO WAY you can describe all these things at once without seriously affecting pacing and overloading your reader with too much info.
You can try to give the info in pieces, but then you face a specific danger: inconsistency between your new info and the image the reader has already created.
Let’s say you’ve never said anything about a character’s height. This character has a strong and powerful personality, and he’s a guy. I, for some reason, am likely to picture such a character as tall, or at least of average height.
Let’s say on page 89, you mention that this character can walk beneath a low-hanging bar and doesn’t have to duck. Or you flat out have someone else make a joke about him being short.
As the reader, I’m going to be jarred from the story and a bit confused because that doesn’t fit the image I’ve created of the character on my own. After all, I was given nothing to go on.
I had nothing to make me assume the character was tall, that’s true. But neither was there anything pushing “short” into my head.
CONCLUSIONS TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS REFLECTION
1. DON’T PANIC ABOUT THIS POSSIBILITY. It happens to all of us as readers, and we keep reading. The fact is it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to ensure your reader can never form an image of a character that will be contradicted later by the text. All you can do as a writer is:
- Make sure your descriptions are consistent from scene to scene
- Address any comments related to appearance that beta readers and editors make. If one of them tells you, “I thought this guy was tall and now I’m seeing he’s short,” you can do something. Maybe ask, “What made you picture him as tall?”‘ and make some changes.
Beyond that, you’re just worrying about things outside your control, which is never productive. You can’t predict your readers’ life experiences and how those will lead him or her to fill in the blanks. And every reader is different. This is reader territory, and you don’t belong there.
2. FOLLOW YOUR GUT. When writing, I know I can’t describe everything. So when a first draft is developing I focus on what strikes me as most important in a character’s appearance. What is striking, what is puzzling, what people would focus on if for some reason a policeman came up and said, “Describe this guy. We need to find him.”
I polish up during editing, and add or take out information as the final story dictates is appropriate.
3. WHEN YOU’RE DEALING WITH CHARACTER DESCRIPTION, YOU’RE ALWAYS CREATING A BALANCE BETWEEN WHAT YOU NEED/ WANT TO SAY AND OVERKILL. I always feel such a balance comes about best when I let it evolve naturally. I don’t think about forcing a balance; balance is science. Writing is ART. I focus on getting info on the page that can guide the reader.
4. REMEMBER YOUR READERS WON’T BE CONSCIOUSLY FOCUSING ON THIS STUFF. If your writing flows well, feels natural, and gives your readers a foothold, their brains will naturally fill in the gaps in a way that makes sense for them as individuals. They’re not going to sit there thinking, “How tall do I think this person is? 5 feet 10 inches? 6 feet 3?”
For the most part, information not stated is trivial (unless it’s critical information purposefully withheld, to be revealed at a more suitable time). If it matters that the character is tall, you’ll make sure to get that across to the reader. And if it doesn’t matter, it’s not worth wasting hours worrying about.
5. SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO WRITE. Seriously. It’s fun to discuss things like this in theory, but when it comes to practice, just get writing. Give some thought to what major points of description your readers will need. Give some thought to a couple of extra points to make your characters really pop. And then let it go. Don’t agonize about it.
I have mental images of a character named Zate that vary greatly from how I have him described on the page. I’ll continue editing the draft I have for a while and see whether I naturally reconcile the old picture to how I view him now.
If I still see him differently, then I’ll change the description and that’s that. I imagine that’s how things will end up. It’s not a big deal. It’s nothing to stress about, for SURE.
It’s kind of fun, theoretically, to write posts about. But in practice: I’m not going to go back and forth, back and forth. I’m just going to make Zate in the novel match how I see him in my head.
So, what do you think about character description? Is it hard for you? Do you find it comes easy?
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