Here, from the Description section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. is the second chapter, “Describing a point-of-view character”
One of the first opportunities for a writer to break the spell he’s weaving in the reader’s mind is when the time comes to describe a character from within that character’s point of view. You’ve seen the hackneyed “looks in a mirror” approach—although it works, it just isn’t, well, good. But that’s just one among many clumsy ways to add description. For example:
She shook her long blond hair out of her eyes.
What’s wrong with that? In my view, if you’re close in a character’s point of view, experiencing the story as they do, you don’t include things the character would not think or do. If your hair is in your eyes, the thought in your mind isn’t to get your long blond hair out of your eyes, it’s simply to get your hair out of your eyes. In this example, adding “long blond” is an authorial intrusion that distances the reader from the character.
Maybe you don’t even need to describe a character
Don’t forget that you’ve got a reader out there, ready and eager to contribute to the vision. If you sketch in enough of a character’s appearance for the reader to distinguish the character from others, the reader is perfectly capable of adding details to the picture in their mind. Being a participant in building the scene is part of the fun of reading.
When Elmore Leonard wrote in the New York Times about his ten rules of writing, he quoted a character from a John Steinbeck novel who says, “I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
Leonard goes on to say this:
In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like?
“She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.”
That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
Readers will indeed fill in the picture without much help from you. While the author may know what a character looks like, maybe the reader doesn’t need to quite so much.
If there’s something remarkable about a character’s appearance that affects the story, then there’s a clear need to describe. A couple of examples that come to mind:
- A character is so beautiful that she or he draws a crowd wherever she or he goes.
- A man who is so ugly that he can’t find work because people can’t look at him.
But if you do need to describe a character, there are several ways to do it.
The “character thinks about himself” approach:
In this example, we’re in a teenager named Jesse’s point of view. He’s just remarked to his friend Dudley about a girl they’ve met who sparked a lot of interest in him.
Dudley shrugged. “She was looking at you.”
Jesse could think of only one word for what she had seen—medium. Medium tall, medium brown hair, medium brown eyes, medium looks, medium build (if he could shed a couple pounds). Medium nobody.
Jesse’s relatively low self-esteem gives the reader enough of a picture to go on. The passage continues, finding a way to give the reader Jesse’s age, but doing it within the context of describing the girl, which leads to. . .
The “see a character through another’s eyes” approach:
Jesse had figured the rancher’s daughter for fifteen when they met at the ranch house that morning, so he had a year on her. But she was already the kind of girl a boy instantly undressed with his eyes.
It wasn’t her body that had started his mental peep show, although she was fun to look at. She was small, five feet tip to toe, if that. His gaze had roamed happily down and back up slender, tanned legs exposed by short shorts, but on top she was no Playmate of the Month.
It was a boldness in her green eyes that promised the stuff of daydreams. And then her handshake had lingered, her fingertips trailing across his palm as they left.
I feel that this technique is showing, via Jesse’s feelings and reactions about the girl, rather than telling. In this way the description of the girl characterizes both of them—it’s much more than a simple snapshot, a list of features such as hair and eye color, height, weight, etc.
Here’s how Jesse’s friend Dudley was described, using the “another’s eyes” approach. Here, past history between the friends helps characterize and describe at the same time:
Dudley moved in even slower motion. Big and powerful at six feet and on the fat side, every year the Wildcat football coach came after Dudley for the offensive line, and every year Dudley was too lazy for all that exercise. But his strength didn’t seem to help today.
At this point in the narrative, the boss, the owner of the ranch the boys are working for, arrives on the scene.
Mister Braun fit Jesse’s picture of a Texas rancher. Standing eye to eye with Jesse, he was lean, his tan skin like a tight leather glove. Gray peppering his long black sideburns made him look old to Jesse, maybe as old as forty.
The dust whitening his jeans looked like it belonged there, and the sweat darkening his shirt and straw cowboy hat looked like hard work. He wore heavy-duty shoes, not the boots Jesse had expected on a rancher.
You learn the boss’s size—eye to eye with Jesse, who was “medium”—and have a picture of a middle-aged, lean man. But you also know something about his personality—he works hard enough to sweat a lot and doesn’t mind getting dirty.
Descriptions can be lean (and I think should be, most of the time), but sometimes, if the character’s appearance is a factor in the story because of how others react to her, I look for a way to build more of a picture. Here are two pieces that describe a character—Jewel, a woman in her twenties.
The “character reacts to others” approach:
Murphy’s piggy eyes stumbled across Jewel as she closed on him. His gaze went for its usual tour of her body—yeah, she was wearing a sleeveless, scoop-neck top and a mini-skirt, but what the hell, couldn’t a girl enjoy a spring day without some slob feeling her up with his eyeballs?
Okay, now we know how she’s dressed, and our imagination fills in a woman shapely enough to provoke such attention. The action continues with. . .
The “character reacts to events” approach:
The breeze that swirled around the tall office buildings reeked of car exhaust, but her skin liked its touch even though the sky above was its usual beige. She basked in the sun’s warmth, imagining she could feel it turning her gold-brown color a shade darker.
Now we know, sort of, the color of her skin. And something about her personality, a certain sensuality. But wait, there’s more. . .
The “looks at a reflection” approach:
I think you can do this as long as it reflects a true point-of-view response.
She stopped to eye a cupcake display in a restaurant window. In her reflection, her ice-blue eyes—donated by some honky ancestor—jumped out at her. So did the scar, a three-inch trail curving down her face from high on her cheekbone.
Jewel gave her body the once-over like Murphy had. Still lookin’ good . . . wait a minute, was that a little bit of extra tummy? She turned sideways. Damn, gettin’ poochy. She sucked in her gut and walked on, wrestling with whether to diet or exercise, or both.
This last descriptive part combines the “reflection” approach with the “thinks about self” technique in a believable and natural way. Her reflection is used to provoke thoughts that characterize (i.e. her concern about her figure) without the author telling the reader details about her figure.
For what it’s worth
© 2010 Ray Rhamey