Images of Characters, Part II

Following up on Sunday’s post, I realized that characters are often described (at least in amateur writing) by their hairstyle or hair color and eye color, but those two characteristics are so overused that they don’t make the mental image of the character any clearer.

I recently finished All the Rage (a YA novel by Courtney Summers), which made me feel as though I should give up on ever writing anything again because I will never write as well as this particular author (fortunately, I did not take myself seriously when I had that thought). One description of a minor character was so spot-on that I instantly pictured this person clearly and accurately:

“Howdy, Bartlett,” a feeble voice says. I follow it to the cash register, where Art Baker sits. He’s the kind of seventy-five that acts ninety.

That last sentence was all the description given for the character, and it said nothing about how he actually looked, yet I could see him, probably because I have already seen the kind of person the narrator is referring to.

What this means is that it doesn’t take much to describe a character or get a mental image of him or her. Similarly, this description of the titular character from Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (I think I’ll be quoting from this book often) was just as accurate:

Returning to my room I sit silent, listening to the heavy tone of her scent: a smell perhaps composed of flesh, faeces and herbs, all worked into the dense brocade of her being.

Again, there is nothing about how the character looks, only how she smells, but somehow this description allows me to picture her more clearly and to understand the affection and the lust that the narrator has for her (even though this is not the most conventionally attractive description).

And that leads me into the five senses, which I will post about on Thursday…

6 thoughts on “Images of Characters, Part II

  1. “…characters are often described (at least in amateur writing) by their hairstyle or hair color and eye color…”

    I have to laugh, since this reminds me of a post-apocalyptic YA romance novel I read a while back (a friend was the editor). The writer managed to cram a LOT of neck-up description of the main character into the first paragraph (and not directly, as in “she had long hair and a pug nose,” but more like, “she pushed her fair, shoulder-length hair out of her pale, hazel eyes, and her freckled cheeks flushed as she worked…”).

    So, not only did I get a lot of details about a character I didn’t yet have a reason to care about, I got to imagine the writer chortling in the background at how cleverly she was working this information into the narrative.

    The rest of the protagonist, from the neck down? Never described. This is a character with an active job, and one who gets into various physical altercations in the story, and I have no idea if the movie version would star Ellen Page, Taylor Swift, Melissa McCarthy, or Ronda Rousey. 🙂

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    1. That’s something I’m trying to eliminate from my own writing. In real life, I always notice people’s hair and eyes first, so that tends to be what I describe in my characters, but then I remember that the reader wants the interesting stuff!

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  2. Loved the points you made in the article.
    My character, Adelaide, is blind so when I write from her persepective I have to really focus on writing from the other senses. For Adelaide the sense of smell and touch are the biggest ones!

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