Lookinglass

ceci est la couleur des mes reves
this is the colour of my dreams

You all know how much I love description and how I seem to hang my hat on that point.  Abigail recently wrote up a post on describing characters which I thought was really good and well worth reading.  Abigail is, of course, very logical and more clear on points than I ever am.  I'm a happy-go-lucky kind of writer.  Anyway, I recommend reading the post, but the gist of it is, don't get locked into the cliche venues of describing characters.  Keep in mind Point of View; make sure the character making observations is in character by and while doing so; and don't info-dump description: "the alabaster-skinned girl flung herself over the balcony, slim figure caught against the beryl-blue sky, her daffodil-golden hair floating around her narrow, freckled face, making a kind of halo for her until she put up one slender hand - a pianist's hand - to push back the heavy yellow locks from her exotic features..."  She may have all of that, but for goodness' sake don't drown us with it all at once.

I think my strength tends to lie in exposition of emotion.  I still war with Skander over his hair colour: it is brown, a rich, aristocratic brown, but he's a blond kind of guy.  And typically I simply don't mention it.  I tend to deal with his emotions, and the emotions of the other characters, to give the readers not only a view of the person's physical expression, but a clearer expression of the soul.

He did not say anything, but there was in his eyes for an instant a look almost of despair, like a weaponless man getting a glimpse of the dragon’s yawning mouth.

Later she understood what he had said, but her mind had wandered to Rhodri again. Blue, blue like lightning, blue like the sky breaking through the storm: odd, disjointed, broken images of him flickered across her vision. 

Here are two instances of the same character being described in my typical emotional way, but from different angles.  The first excerpt channels his image at you and the main character through his own emotion, fairly purely and unbiased.  The second excerpt, though of the same character, filters his image to you through the emotion of the main character.  It is a very slight different and I want to assure you that I did not write these two passages that way consciously (so don't overthink your writing), but the difference is there: in the first the image is very clear-cut, fixed, concentrated and vivid; in the second it is diluted by the oppression of sorrow and sheer blind weariness.  The same character is being portrayed, but just as in life the person is seen differently through different circumstances.

It was a pale, sorrowful face that looked back at her; but somehow it was a different paleness than her former sickly one. She looked haunted. But beneath that pale hauntedness was a harder, firmer skin, and something that was shockingly masculine.

This is a case of negative appeal.  Not all of us look our best all the time.  Sometimes it seems like nine time out of ten we look kind of shabby.  So the character doesn't look ill anymore, but her adventures haven't exactly left her with perfectly formed nails and cheeks of alabaster.  What she has, has a kind of appeal: it's nice to be hardy and to survive; but under the surface of this piece is an exchange of things, something unwanted given up for something probably not wanted either, and that coats the passage with a sense of something lost.  She doesn't want to look hardy, like a survivor.  She's a woman.  She wants to look beautiful.  She didn't want to give up her pale, pinched looks for a set jaw and a hard cleft between her eyes.  This isn't a case of someone turning grotesque: it's that sad case of life turning our appearance into something we don't want, something we can't avoid.

[Rupert] sighed and seemed suddenly very weary, worn out, a huge, sharp-angled shadow: his profile was the grim sketch of all great men. “I forget that you are English.”

Appeal in the bad guys.  Not always that shining, swaggering, impossibly-gorgeous appeal (though that has its place, believe me).  Here I've given you, not a description of his clenched brow and frown, etc., but a sense of heaviness and cast you back on the memories of the terrible great ones who have stamped themselves on our history.  Sometimes description isn't a case of telling how something looks, but diverting you to imagine what something is like, and I tend to do that with an emotional link, which, I find, helps bridge the gap between the image, the reader, and the tertium quid to which I am alluding.  "Fair to see and slender as a racehorse" - one of my favourite descriptive lines, though not one I can claim, does that for me.

Just for once, take a look into how you favour description.  I filter mine through layers of emotion, but what do you do?  Please don't suppose I think all description must be that intensively emotional.  I don't always use emotion as a filter: sometimes I use objective description ("fair to see and slender as a racehorse") and play upon the emotions of the main character with those images.  If you're not too shy, I would love to see posts on this chock full of your character-descriptive passages.  I love blundering through other writers' work and seeing how you paint the world!  Go on, have a go at it!  

17 ripostes:

  1. ohMYWORD, this is PERFECT!!! I love it! It also fits perfectly because I just wrote a description of my NaNo character, Cayne, which I am VERY fond of. So. I shall have to post it. =D

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  2. You bet your shiny nail polish you're gonna have to. :P

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  3. I might just do this description thing, though none of my are heavy on the amazing side of things. Still...they're pictures.

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  4. I ask for all your Rembrandts and your Beatrix Potters. There is something lovely in each of them. ^.^

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  5. Hmm, I believe I'll do this. I have a sort of...simple way of describing things. I like the Ernest Hemmingway style, and tend to copy it a little.

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  6. Naturally I'm very fond of the passages dealing with Rhodri, and less naturally of the one featuring Rupert (you've ruined my hatred of him by mentioning how well Take It All Away fits him), but I think I like the second-t'-last one best. It captures so much of character and story at once, and goes beyond mere words.

    I really must trawl through my stories and see what bits of description I've got. I didn't really look when I did my post.

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  7. Rhodri! I gave a little wriggle as I read that. I hadn't realized I missed Rhodri. Odd isn't? That I can miss a character I know almost nothing of. The one about Rupert is my favorite. I could see him.

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  8. I consider description,character description in particular, to be my weakness ... but I'll see what I can dig out ...

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  9. Love reading your descriptions! Especially that first one... "like a weaponless man getting a glimpse of the dragon’s yawning mouth." Epic! I shall have to pull some of my descriptions out so that you all can meet my characters. :)

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  10. Rupert is definitely my favorite of all your characters that I've met thus far-- and I saw him as blond in my mind. As you said, he just seems like a blond kind of guy.

    I've been thinking a lot lately about how description is often more of idea association than idea whap-over-the-head. I like how you filtered through layers of emotion in your snippets. I need to do more of that-- I tend to state the cold bare facts like a secretary taking shorthand, and nobody wants to read that kind of mindless recording.

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  11. Descriptions of any kind do not come to me naturally (most things in writing don't come to me easily, I do not consider myself a particularly gifted writer, just an incurably stubborn one), but character descriptions seem especially tricky things to master. When describing a character I usually go through a somewhat standardized routine of basic points like hair and eye color and sometimes clothing. That being said, this post was a very interesting read - I had never actually considered filtering descriptions through the lens of emotion, and it seems like a very useful way of doing things. Most of my descriptions, character or otherwise, are objective and brief.

    My most recent character description:

    "The man standing in front of her, holding the cloth bag in his hand, was tall and foreboding. He was clean shaven and his hair was combed neatly. Now unmasked, his expression was mostly blank and his eyes searched Emai’s face curiously. He wore a loose violet uniform, with a simple strip of cloth wrapped around his waist, his loose pants tucked into his black boots."

    Thank you for posting! I have always admired your ability to conjure up vivid images with elegant wording, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

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  12. I love your style of description! I wish I could write like that. Most of my writing, however, involves a main character slapping down a rough sketch, along with sarcastic comments. However, I'm working on that, and I confess that I have imitated your style quite closely at times (usually with unsatisfactory results) However, I did manage to produce one description that I think sounds fairly nice, and is fairly accurate... "[Owen's] eyes were fixed upon her face, and she felt as though those stormy gray eyes must pierce through every veil she’d ever worn and see right into her soul."
    Perhaps not the best description ever written, but I am proud of it. *looks around defiantly, then dissolves into giggles*

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  13. Oh, I love this idea! Mine will pale terribly in contrast with your brilliant pieces, but I shall definitely get around to posting them this afternoon. :)

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  14. How did you know I had shiny nail polish? Silver at the moment ;)

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  15. Jenny, I am stopping by from my friend Rachel Heffington's blog to say how charming that line of encouragement is about "I ask for all your Rembrandts and your Beatrix Potters. There is something lovely in each of them." I am a non-fiction writer myself but I was much encouraged by your words! How lovely it is to appreciate the differences in life. :) Thank you!

    Blessings!
    ~Miss Rachel~

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  16. Mirriam: Knowing you, I guessed you had shiny nail polish. Nail polish that isn't shiny isn't worth buying, anyway. Mine is a sheeny yellow that has seen better days...

    Miss Rachel: I've seen you out and about, to tell the truth, so I did know who you are! It is unusual to find non-fiction writers in this sphere, so that certainly stands out to me. As for appreciating the differences, in our line of work I've found so many people harping how to do this, that, and the other thing, and if you have this in your writing you're doing it wrong and if you don't have that then you will be a failure, when I know I have run the literature gamut in my own reading about found that just about anything goes if you have a good hand at your craft. There are rules to writing, but they are quiet, basic rules, and I've tried to make a conscious effort to not fall into that rut of telling people they ought to write my way. Because they oughtn't. The world is seen through so many different eyes, if we don't allow people to show their view of it, we will miss so many beautiful facets of it.

    So many people participated in this exercise! I was really thrilled to see what all you had to offer. Everyone, be sure to jaunt about and look at other people's blogs. I learned a lot from the passages I read and I'm sure you all will too.

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  17. A lovely post! Your description is beautiful, Jenny, as always. I love the idea of filtering description through emotions... I don't know how often I have done this, if ever, but I should like to try :).

    I really enjoyed reading your snippets in this post as well!

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