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Gazing into the Looking Glass
by Tina Morgan


(excerpted from The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction - Chapter 10 - Bringing Characters to Life)

Descriptions: When/Where

Before writing this chapter, I looked for writing articles about character description and while I found several that talked about physical traits; I didn't find any that covered character description from the point of timing.

What I did find reaffirmed the idea that we need to read and research the genre we're writing to develop a good feel for what works with fans of that genre. Science Fiction tends to be more straightforward and less flowery than fantasy. There is a difference in style and tone.

One way many new writers try to hook their reader is to describe their character so the reader can "see" them. In order to take a look at how professional authors handle this, I chose several books off my bookshelf and examined when and how the author described their protagonist.

In Liz Williams' Nine Layers of Sky, the first hint of description we find is on page six when Elena is standing outside at a police checkpoint. "Ice crackled in her hair; she could see a frosty blonde fringe just above her eyes." The next snippet comes on page 33 when Atyrom is scolding her for not eating and he says, "You're already as thin as a crack."

On the first page, of Orson Scott Card's Enders Game, we learn that two people are discussing a child and that one of those people is a man. No description, no idea of age or physical abilities. On page ten, Ender gives us a description of his brother, Peter, but we still don't know what Ender looks like. By page seventeen we finally learn that Ender is six years old, but we still don't know what color his hair or eyes are.

Both books rely on the character's situation and not the character's description to capture the reader's interest. While descriptions did help me "see" characters better, they weren't as important to the stories as I'd expected them to be. They were secondary information compared to how the characters were feeling, how they interacted with other characters, and how they were going to behave in the next paragraph. It was the exceptional story that needed a detailed character description.

In contrast, the opening paragraph of Anne McCaffrey's, The Ship Who Sang is completely about Helva's description and condition. The very first line throws the reader directly into Helva's world, "She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies."2

Lois McMaster Bujold's, Miles Vorkosigan is such an oddity in his own world that his physical appearance and health plays a major role in how he interacts with those around him. So she describes him fairly quickly (by page six in Cetaganda) but Bujold is quick to bring the story back to Mile's personality. After comparing himself to his handsome, strong cousin, Ivan, Miles thinks that perhaps his supervisor ordered Ivan to accompany him because: "On the other hand, maybe Ivan had been sent along to stand next to Miles and make him sound good. Miles brightened slightly at the thought."3




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