How do you describe your character’s physical appearance? It’s not always easy to describing your characters without resorting to the cliched “She looked in the mirror and saw…”
Likewise, setting the scene for each part of your story is an important element of building your fictional world. In fact, some authors go to great lengths to describe the weather patterns, the scenery and the passing traffic in detail so that the reader has a sense of the world around the characters.
This kind of descriptive narrative can sometimes be long and cumbersome. It can also bog down the pace of your story if not done right - especially when all the experts are saying
Show - don’t tell!
Many authors are careful to explain exactly what is going on in their fictional worlds. What people look like, what objects around them look like, what characters are thinking about, how the weather is behaving, the precise color of an object, what characters are seeing around them… all of which means the author is telling the reader what to see.
But not many authors actually take the time to write HOW their characters are seeing the things that are going on around them. This is where the author should be showing the reader what’s happening. Your own characters are a perfect tool to use when you need to show events or appearances or even moods.
Let me explain…
Every person on the planet sees life through their own personal perceptions. How they choose to interpret those perceptions is largely up to that person. In fact, their perceptions can be affected by a multitude of factors.
These differing perceptions are what make us unique as human beings. What excites one person may repel another. What one person sees as attractive, another may find repulsive. What one character yearns for may send another character into panic attacks. That’s the beauty about being individual.
For example: A sunny day might brighten the mood of one character and seriously frighten a person with a phobia of skin cancer. The same sunny day would therefore have a completely different effect on the latter character and would skew many of his other perceptions, too.
The same is true for personal relationship preferences. Some people are attracted to curvaceous women, while others are repelled by them. Still others prefer the gorgeous occidental features of Asian people while others veer toward the svelte, slinky blonde types or have a stronger preference for fiery red-heads.
Because we all have such different tastes and opinions, these perceptions of what we find appealing and unappealing will color your descriptions of those things.
Remembering to use these differences in character perspective can add depth to your characters by showing your readers much about their personalities - all without actually using narrative to TELL your readers what’s going on.
Show, Don’t Tell
So how does a writer show things happening, or describe another character, without resorting to large chunks of descriptive narrative AND remember to add the unique perspective of the character at the same time?
The simple answer is: Dialogue.
When your characters talk to each other, you should be exercising the opportunity to express far more than just words. Dialogue can propel your plotline, it can highlight the importance of conflicts, it can describe physical traits of other characters, it can show character perspective and it can show the reader many other things - all at once.
“I hate this miserable rain. All I can do is sit around and mope in the house until it stops,” Fred said.
“If we run, we can get to the stream and catch some frogs. The rain always brings out the frogs!” Jack called.
In just two sentences within the dialogue tags, I have (hopefully) conveyed something about the weather, given a sense of the character’s mood, described what the character is doing, and given each character a unique perspective on what is happening.
Both characters are viewing the rain in a completely different way - and neither of the above examples required lengthy blocks of narrative to achieve the same effect.
Describing Physical Traits
“Jane tossed her long golden tresses over her shoulder to flow down her slender back. Running the tip of her tongue over wide, full lips, her emerald green eyes glinted with a hint of promise to come and she crossed her long, supple legs slowly.”
“John ran a perfectly manicured hand through his raven black hair, his sparkling blue eyes taking in every inch of her…”
Have you ever read a book in which the characters are described in unwieldy chunks of narrative as though they were no more than cardboard cut-outs of a Barbie and Ken promotional poster?
In over-exaggerated examples like the ones above, it is obvious that the ‘narrator’ has stopped the story and interrupted you - the reader! - to remind you how fabulously, amazingly gorgeous the author wants you to think these people look.
The problem with this approach is the author has forgotten that all readers have different opinions on what’s attractive. More importantly, the characters should be the ones voicing their thoughts and preferences.
So is it necessary to include these bland descriptions in your narrative at all?
Recently I read a lengthy book (1,050 pages). The book was very detailed, the scope was sweeping and the cast was huge. Yet nowhere in the entire book did the author mention what any of the characters looked like during his narrative. He only ever offered his character’s perceptions of other characters. I actually read the book twice to check how the author achieved this effect.
I found this method to be extremely effective. It showed me each character’s viewpoint as a distinct and separate perception. Each person saw different qualities in the people they interacted with, so the physical traits altered to suit those perceptions with each description. He did the same thing with certain furnishings, scenery, weather patterns and moods. Every description in the book came from another character commenting on it in some way that was relevant to the story.
Several times throughout the book the author made references to certain features to identify who people were talking about. For example, the main character had a scar running along the left side of his face. The reader only knows this because we saw it through another character’s eyes during the dialogue - and not in a narrative description.
“…I tell you, Stan, when Alec glared at me with those dead eyes, I nearly passed out with fear. I knew he was angry when hideous scar started to twitch. When it does that, the whole left side of his face contorts and you just know he’s thinking he wants to cut your throat…”
And yet - a different character describes Alec this way:
…Miranda sighed and let her chin rest in the cup of her hand. “He’s got those deep, dreamy blue eyes. The kind you just want to get lost in, I guess. And when he looks at me, his scar jumps - like he’s trying to hold back a smile.”
These two people are describing the same character - Alec. One perceives him as hard and violent. The other sees him as dreamy.
During the book a male character tried to tell Alec what a woman looked like (she was the target for an assassination).
“The target has the classic hooker look. Bleached blonde, cleavage on display for anyone to see and legs that go forever under a cheap leather mini. And a face that could break concrete. Hard as nails, she is.”
That was HIS perception of the person - not the actual physical traits of the woman in question.
Nowhere in any of those descriptions did the author say “5 feet 10 inches, blonde, thin, blue eyes, full lips”. His descriptions only encompassed what the person doing the describing saw through his or her own perceptions.
Have you ever heard the adage “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”?
Your characters should be able to view the things around them according to their own predilections and personal tastes.
“Oh my! What a hideous vase. I can’t believe someone would actually pay money for a monstrosity like that.”
“Oh, look at that gorgeous vase! The color will match my curtains perfectly.”
Adding small differences in the way your characters view the objects around them will add a sense of realism to your work and bring depth to your characters.
(image courtesy of Dataversity)