On December 28, 2011, FightingIrishFan1111 wrote, I am one of those people who loves to use adjectives, but I think I use too many adjectives! For example, is it better to say: "Her hair was brown", rather than "her luscious, long hair was auburn with flecks of dark mahogany"? I think I over-write some characteristics of my characters! Any suggestions about how to approach looks, personality, and other descriptions would be great!
So, “her hair was brown” is dull. "Her luscious, long hair was auburn with flecks of dark mahogany" is over the top, in my opinion. How can we make both of them work?
Marnie is dressing for a party and feeling a shade insecure about her appearance. When she’s done she asks her two goldfish what they think and narrates their answers. Goldfish #1 says, “The bedroom light brings out the flecks of dark mahogany in Marnie’s luscious, long auburn hair and reflects the twinkle in her sky blue eyes.” Goldfish #2 says, “Nothing to write home about. Brown hair, blue eyes like a million other girls at a thousand other parties.”
What’s happened? We hauled in character development. Marnie is balanced in her uncertainty. There’s that positive side that thinks she may actually look great and the negative that’s blaring Ordinary! This is, as they say, relatable.
If we see Marnie from the outside only, whether she’s gorgeous or unremarkable, we’re unlikely to connect. Most readers (not all) want to know what a character looks like, but they want to get acquainted with her inner life as well, and they’ll probably welcome a peek into the intersection of the two.
The adjectives work in this example, too. They’re not coming from an author piling them on, they’re issuing from the mouths of goldfish.
Notice I don’t put Marnie in front of a mirror. She probably does look in one, but mirrors as a vehicle of physical description (and as portals to another world) are so overused that we want to stay away from them unless we can come up with something fresh (as I hope I did in Fairest).
How to introduce appearance?
You can do it directly in narration. When your main character first encounters another character she can note her impressions in her narration. Here’s how Elodie does it in Beloved Elodie when she meets the only other child in the book, Master Robbie:
An artist could have sketched his face almost entirely in straight lines: the head a triangle ending in a pointed chin, smaller triangle for his nose, a horizontal slash for his unsmiling mouth, two angled strokes for the shadows under his cheeks, roof peaks for his eyebrows, curved lines only for his dark blue eyes and for the dot of pink that bloomed at the tip of his nose, caused by chill or a cold or weeping. Weeping, I thought. He wore mourning beads, too.
Take a look at the adjectives here: straight, pointed, smaller, horizontal, unsmiling, angled, roof, curved, dark, blue, mourning. Eleven words out of eighty-five, over ten percent. I don’t know if that’s a lot or not. And the adverbs: almost, entirely, only. Just three. When I started becoming a writer I often read that writers should keep the adjectives and adverbs to a minimum and that verbs and nouns are the strong parts of speech in English.
It’s good advice when it isn’t followed slavishly. We need all our words.
Let’s distinguish among adjectives. Generally I prefer ones that convey information. In my description of Master Robbie mine do; straight, pointed, etc., show him to the reader. I never call him handsome or ugly. I don’t say those dark blue eyes are attractive. Handsome, beautiful, attractive, luscious are adjectives I rarely use unless they’re spoken by goldfish or goldfish equivalents. If a narrator tells me, Marnie was beautiful, I want to know in what way? Who thinks so? What does her beauty mean for the story?
If the story requires it, we may need to tell the reader about Marnie’s beauty. If her beauty is important for developing character, plot, or setting, go for it. You can start your story with her pulchritude, as in, Marnie was Helen-of-Troy beautiful. Paul, owner of the Venus Modeling Agency, stood up unsteadily when she came in. If there was a manual for perfection she’d meet every standard: tall but not a giraffe, thick wavy hair that glowed like polished mahogany, a nose that Da Vinci would have paid millions to paint, and eyes the color of spring. He stuttered, “The d-dermatologist is t-two d-doors d-down, sweetheart.” Even if he couldn’t control his voice he didn’t want her getting ahead of herself with him. Then we see how she reacts to this, and we’re in.
We just saw Marnie through Paul’s eyes, delivered by a third-person narrator. If Marnie is the first-person narrator, Paul can say his bit, and his mother, who’s visiting the agency, can set him straight with, “Are you blind? She doesn’t need a dermatologist. She’s stunning.” The mother can then catalog her characteristics. In this instance, the description is conveyed in dialogue.
In my The Wish, main character Wilma is drawn by a caricaturist and this is what she thinks when the artist shows her the drawing:
The first thing I saw was my teeth, popping out of my mouth, big and squared-off as piano keys. My whole face receded behind those teeth, except for my lips, which smiled insanely around my bicuspids and incisors and molars and fangs and tusks.
Then I saw my shoulders. In themselves they were fine. But they cradled my head. No neck. None. My head was like a golf ball resting on a tee. Like an egg in the palm of your hand. Like a horror movie.
I was mighty proud of this, which is an imaginative description through thoughts.
These are the three description delivery methods I can think of: thoughts, narration, dialogue. Using these, the description can be given by the POV character, by another character, or by a third-person narrator.
Sentence variety also helps to make description interesting. The verb in the two sentences, "Her hair was brown." and “Her luscious, long hair was auburn with flecks of dark mahogany." is to be, which gets boring pretty quick. In my The Wish example the verb to be is in there, but I’ve also used receded and cradled.
Here are some prompts using the three methods:
∙ Rebecca has been cast in a play, and she and a few other actors are meeting with the costume director. Show in dialogue the appearance of each. For a twist, if you like, imagine that the entire cast are aliens or mutants, anatomically different from us. Make the reader see them through conversation (they speak English).
∙ Ingrid has a little trouble with her temper, and she’s been sent to a program for teens who need anger management. She doesn’t want to be there, and she isn’t the best-natured person on the planet. Write her thoughts describing the others in her group.
∙ Your narrator is introducing the reader to the Shandler family. As the narration proceeds, reveal character along with appearance. Think about what each one is doing during the introduction.
Have fun, and save what you write!