Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Giving a Face to the Name

I was asked how I describe my characters without sounding like an episode of Cops, since I have them cast in my head. The short answer to that is that I don't. that's a super lame answer, I know.

I'm rubbish at descriptions. As a general rule, I'll only describe something if it's relevant. Like, I'll explain the layout of a room if it's going to affect the action in some way. When it comes to characters, well, how they look is rarely relevant.

I always thought that character descriptions should happen early on. In a novel length story, that would be in the first few pages, I guess. The idea being that you want to tell your readers how your characters look before something cements itself in their mind. But if you don't manage to fit it in, have you lost your chance? Is there a point where it's too late? I'm asking because I don't know.

Once upon a time, I actually did describe my characters. My second NaNo novel, from 2011, describes its main character, Zel Van Toren, thusly on page 3:

A few minutes later, she emerged, wearing black trousers and a dark grey short sleeved blouse. She carried the last item from the bundle, a thigh length black coat. Her hair, a murky dark red, was now clean and combed out. Years of neglect had left it tapering towards the ends, with the longest point reaching to a few inches above her knees.

It's a horrible, clunky description. Her companion, CiarĂ¡n MacClellan, on the other hand, is described on page 1 as being Irish, and on page 2 as having dark hair. And this is the sort of description I've started leaning toward. But why? Why couldn't I describe his bright blue eyes and crooked grin that remained despite all the shit he'd been through?

It's like I find something wrong with thinking about characters long enough to describe them. And so, unless it's somehow relevant to the plot, I just don't mention it. I've started realizing that basically no physical description is really relevant, so now no one gets described at all. In today's story, Rachael is implied to be about thirty, if you do the math, but gets no other description. At all. Martin is described as having tattoos on both arms, though the only one specifically mentioned is a bird on one hand. And these are only pointed out when Rachael notices them. The only thing we know about their height is that either he's tall enough or she's short enough that she stands on her toes to kiss him.

Would I like to provide a better picture of my characters? Absolutely. But I am by no means an expert in all this, and I have no idea how to do it with it sounding stupid. You either stop the story while you describe every detail of the character, or you try to work it in bit by bit. But there's always going to be something that will never fit in naturally.

Concerning things like a character's style of clothes, there is the above example where I described what she was wearing after bathing. When that character was introduced, she was in a prison, and so a big deal was made out of her getting new, clean clothes. But I hate doing that. I once read this really crappy story online somewhere where there was this girl, and everything she wore was explained in detail, down to the exact length of her skirt in inches. This happened any time she changed clothes. That's what I think of every time I consider describing what someone is wearing.

Long story short, I have no idea what I'm doing, so I just kill everyone before I have to describe them.

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