Tuesday, July 11, 2006

II - Looks Can Kill


The physical appearance of characters - looks and clothes and other physical appertenances - is another tool in the identi-kit.
Before you yawn and hunch a shoulder, I might remind you that a whole sub-genre of romance was based on clothes - until Daddy took the T-bird awaaay.
Signature clothing designed for a character still has life in it though. The "sweet little old lady" cliche, for example, was improved upon by Mrs. Polifax. Her penchant for odd hats became not only an identifying quirk but also a useful plot device.
A piece of signature jewellery operates on the same level.
Of course, this tool is rife with cliches. Probably the classic hunky hero and the gorgeous girl are the hardest to individualize. There are only so many hair colours, no matter what Clairol tells you.
Writers get very tired of flowing tresses and impressive pectorals on interchangeable sock puppets.
Readers apparently don't.
We're playing a golem game.
One can add something to the template.
We see variations of Pygmalion and bodacious females winning hearts and minds.
The fat and the mousey have become a sub-cliche of their own, in fact.
In the reader's psyche, malformations and other oddities have been the exclusive domain of the villainous sort - ever since Cyclops, on through Richard III.
Nevertheless, scars, tattoos, squints, scent, prothesises, and gimpy knees may be used for protagonists and benevolent minor people as well.
Have to be careful with beauty marks and moles though.
Today's public may immediately think pre-cancerous growth.
And freckles. Readers might wonder if the character is TSTUSB - Too Stupid To Use Sun Block.
Social politics are a pain. Also a reality.
The secret, I think, is not to outline the scars or the tattoos or the whatever in a descriptive info-dump and ignore them ever after, but to have them affect other characters and influence the plot.
Have other characters notice and comment. Readers need to be reminded so the differentiating quality mentioned on page three doesn't pop up on page 249 like an arriving alien.
If the heroine has long, flowing tresses, for example, I'd like to see them, just once( pleasepleaseplease), get caught in a wringer, a door, form a hair ball under her arm-pit, shed in the Cordon Bleu - not just flounced over her shoulder, not just to impassion the hero.
All for that, of course, hair is a sex characteristic, but hair is not a wig to be put on for the bedroom scene.
Like names, don't stick particular or peculiar physical characteristics on characters like post-it notes and then file and forget.

Note: KM is now an associate editor at Freya's Bower and Wild Child Publishing.
ME is now horror editor at Wild Child.
Hope I haven't screwed the links yet again.

39 comments:

Erik Ivan James said...

Signature clothing, jewelry, body scars/marks, etc.........

Thanks for reminding me. I've slighted those details in mine.

Ric said...

I tend to keep my male characters close to my own physical shape. This is a conscious decision. I don't know what it's like to duck going through doorways, or how hard it is to squeeze too much into an airline seat.

I think it's easier to portray - or at least realistic - since it's hard, if not impossible, to understand how different life is for some.

oh, wait, that wasn't the question. Not enough coffee this morning.

Flood said...

Not her hair, but Miss Scarlett's dress was caught a lot, and always at the worst moment. Also: never in a time of crisis did she have a hanky.

Sigh.

Apropos of nothing, I read the sequal to GWTW recently and really regretted doing that.

Scott said...

Good advice here. I try to have other people react or comment on the appearance of my characters, to avoid dissertations. I think it paints a picture instead of overexplaining.

Bernita said...

A thought during revision, Erik.
Every hero doesn't have to set the hanging ceiling fixture swinging, Ric.
But you do manage women nicely, do you not?

There you go, Flood.
Like all these elements, many tend to drift over into body language.

Highly approve of that method, Scott. The cateloguing of a character like a room is a lazy way to go.

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Ric said...

I do love the ladies. Nothing I love more than having a female reader ask how I do that...

Reading detailed descriptions tends to turn me off to the author. I like a quick general description that I automatically assign to someone I know - that creates the picture in my mind. Keep it simple.

to the topic - however. If, as you pointed out, it is a plot device, all things are useful. A scar, that scar on her arm, the one she hates, the one she covered up for so many years, turns out to be the result of her mother driving drunk and every time she takes a drink, she remembers how much she hated her mother, but through the novel she grows and changes until she can dump the long sleeves and embrace both her mother and life.

But, if you only mention it once, it serves no purpose...

fringes said...

TSTUSB...I must have that acronym, please. I'll only need the first three. I can fill in the rest depending on the situation. Thanks!

I agree with ric's idea about description. Use sparingly. When it's an unusual mark, use only if relevant to the plot. But that's just me. And ric.

Bernita said...

An excellent example, Ric. Thank you.

Erm, not quite just you two, Fringes.
And yes, the acrynonym is an expansion of the Romance genre's TSTL - Too Stupid To Live.

Dennie McDonald said...

y'know - I think I might have to use the hair in the door - reason for the shorn locks... hehehe - Thanks

I actually almost never read desciptsion - I tend to have a preconceived notion in my head and when I read what the author has to say I get hung up on it. In turn, I tend to be light on description - now - earlier in my writing I would describe every last figgin' freckle...

Bernita said...

Curious to know just what prompts your preconceived image, Dennie.

Think the block description is a common beginner's mistake.
Fueled to a degree by writing exercises at creative writing classes -
meant to train the eye, not to be a set piece.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I'm with Dennie: a reformed desriber (descriptivator? We need a term for "person who uses too much description").

If you need more words for hair color, I have a nifty character thesaurus: Building Believable Characters from Writer's Digest books. Here's a few from the middle of the list:

dusky, fair-haired, fawn, fiery, flaming, flaxen, flint, fox, golden, gray, grizzled, henna, hoary, honey, ivory, jet-black, lily, magnolia, mahogany, maple sugar

It's a great reference. There are also lists of words for eye color, eye shape, nose types, skin complextion, hair textures, etc., and that's just part of one chapter!

kmfrontain said...

I'm with Dennie in that I don't like a super detailed description. If I read something super detailed, and it doesn't fit -- somehow -- with the 'voice' or 'feel' of that character, then I stick on it too. And sometimes I just read the story with my own idea of what's right for my imagination in any case.

It's because what the author thinks is gorgeous isn't necessarily my ideal. That's not to say description should be vague all the time. I think the bare bones can include any facial/bodily details that make a person stand out from other characters, but after that the reader will fill in whatever notion gets into his head anyway.

It's because I know readers put in their own ideal that sometimes I'm not too strenuous about exact detail, and it's also the reason I don't want artwork with a character's face in it, although this isn't always feasible to a publisher. It's just my way of thinking. I'd rather have the character looking away, only show a bit of face if anything.

And thanks for the announcement, Bernita. :D

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...I love what you did with the long tresses! I must use some of that for comic relief!

I remember several years ago when I had long hair. I was helping a freind in a place where they had those huge industial fans going all the time...

You'd better believe I tied my hair up tight to keep from getting sucked in!

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

I’ve been catching up on your posts, Bernita. Honestly, I could spend all day reading your blog. :-)

First, your photo was lovely. Very soulful. It doesn’t matter what year it’s from because your inner beauty will never change.

And I must tell you how much I enjoy your advice, questions and ponderings for writers. It would be wonderful if you could keep all such posts together somewhere for writers to access easily. Your articles and the resulting comments are fabulous for writers at any stage, but absolutely invaluable for those aspiring to be published. Yours is one of those blogs in which I see writers happy to help each other by freely and unselfishly sharing ideas, and that’s truly what it’s all about.

Now, as for writing descriptions of hair, eyes, skin, and clothing, etc., for characters--I’m also a graphic artist and often turn to my sets of Pantone markers, colored inks, acrylic paints and the list of matt board colors. If you don’t have any of these at home, a trip to your local arts and crafts store will yield some wonderful suggestions. My pantry is another good resource. There I’ll I gaze at all the herbs and spices, sauces and jars of condiments, etc., until something strikes me. Another interesting source is a wine and/or liquor store (or department of the grocery store). The higher-end libations usually have little descriptive cards detailing the color, depth and other qualities of the beverage taken from Wine Spectator magazine ratings or from the manager or buyer of the store’s wine department. As other commenters here have wisely stated, subtlety is best when it comes to description.

Bernita said...

Seems the trick is to provide clues, not a photograph, Karen, and you've just explained some good reasons why.
And you're welcome. They are lucky to have you, IMHO.

Thank you, Bonnie, feel free.
Fear of scalping is a real concern.

Looks like a great resource for the running of the adjectives, Sonya.
What tickles me is not the third person POV using those terms so much as the Protag POV using a descriptor that is alien to his vocabulary. Some writers would be much better off using a simile instead.

Bernita said...

Daisy, you are a Darling.
A true, certified Darling.
Thank you for those generous words.

Your advice about paints, herbs and spices and the wine shelves is just excellent!
Make note people.
Daisy is the real thing - original and never, ever dull.

December Quinn said...

Okay, I know you were using Richard III as an example of literary villains with deformities, BUT...as a Ricardian...he wasn't a villain, okay? I'll just leave it at that.

Sorry, couldn't not say anything.

As far as description, I'm another bare-boneser. A hint of hair color and eye color when the character is introduced to the POV character, or maybe general build. My demon is part Chinese so I mentioned that immediately, because that's the kind of thing that could be confusing later and needs to be established right away.

The rest...I can talk about full lips or thin lips when someone smiles or speaks, or big hands or wrists, or whatever, but I don't usually describe face shapes or nose shapes or anything like that. I like to let the reader use their imagination.

And honestly, you can describe someone in exact detail and still every reader will have a different mental picture. So why not just give an outline? If my handsome dark-haired hero looks different to you than he does in my mind, so what?

I've used scars to great effect, but clothing nd jewelry...hmmm...

M.E Ellis said...

Ahh, now this is where you might like my new humour novella, Bernita. She has quite a time while shaving unsightly hair, and never shoves it over her shoulder, although her armpit hair leaves a lot to be desired.

:o)

Bernita said...

Perhaps I should have mentioned Quasimodo as an example, December, then your feathers wouldn't have gotten ruffled.
"literary villain" is the key.
Apparently there is very little historical evidence that Richard was actually deformed, in spite of the number Shakespeare did on him and not much more that he was actually a villain - or at least, not any more so than anyone else at the time.
Depends on how one interprets the evidence. For the record, I am inclined to favour Richard.

Think the only time I have done a fairly detailed description was from a cop's POV. My excuse for it that he is trained to tally descriptors.
Like to avoid the nasal and face shape detail too.

Bernita said...

~sigh~
And I hoped I had avoided the suggestion of braided arm-pit hair, Michelle.
Should have know you'd get wicked.
Fact is, long hair -on the head - can get caught under the arm.

Ric said...

Braided armpit hair?
Kinky, ladies, kinky.

December Quinn said...

Sorry, Bernita, that was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek. You didn't offend me, and I hope I didn't upset you. :-)

You know what's funny about avoiding nose descriptions? I think one reason I do it (aside from the fact that noses are hard to describe) is I tend to like men with big noses, so to me a man with a larger nose would be handsome, but I know a lot of women would think, "Yuck! Why's she giving him that big old honker?" So I avoid it entirely.

Bernita said...

Braiding usually has that effect, Ric.

Thank you, December, was afraid I had.
Tend to like a bold nose mesel'.
Noses are hard to describe fetchingly anyway - at least on men, and uless they are unusual, why bother?
Don't think most people pay much attention to noses in real life - unless they are unusually something or the other - at least I don't.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yewww!! Braided armpit hair...It makes it doubley gross because I know some women who could...braid it that is....ROFLOL!

Bernita said...

Hmmm, underarm beards, Bonnie.
Reminds me I didn't mention facial hair, beards and mustaches on men - and women.
Of course there's the laugh lines and the twin creases between the brows that indicate either concentration or a tendency towards migraines - but those are so overdone.

Jaye Wells said...

Nice post Bernita. I think like many elements of story, like love scenes, descriptions are meaningless unless they actually move the plot forward or give insight into the character.

In my current wip, for example, I use a description of the heroine's shoes to reveal a lot about her character. Since this is a Pygmalion story, the physical description is crucial to the plot.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Jaye.
Certainly, in a well-knit novel every detail should ahve a purpose - ideally, more than one.

Robyn said...

Great post. Eye color used as character description always gets me- if I read about one more hero who has gun metal gray eyes...

I prefer the first impression of the character from another character's POV. Many people notice one or two things right away, and it's as much about personality as looks. I agree with Dennie; no need for the police APB the first time you see him.

And hair? Why do none of these long-tressed people ever have to pull the hair out of their mouths?

Rick said...

I admit it - I'm a sucker for long, flowing hair, and have no intention of having it shorn.

But since you mention the idea, I really should have it get caught in a door or something. :)

Carla said...

Rick - ladies of the period probably wore their hair pinned up or covered with a head-dress, no? Probably to stop it getting caught in doors....
There's a scene in one of Sharon Penman's historicals where a character wakes up in bed to find that her lover is fast asleep on her long flowing hair and she has to prod him awake before she can move. You could nick that :-)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Robyn, she choked.You are exactly right.
Always gets in their eyes,don't it? As in across.
Never seems to cause them to gag and spit,never scratches their eyeballs or make them sneeze.

Carla's right, Rick. Furthermore, that type of scene has the added advantage of being entirely accurate...

Cynthia Bronco said...

How about long flowing tresses shedding in the shower, clogging the drain and aggravating her lover who then spurns her for a woman with a plucky short crop?

Bernita said...

Hmmm.
Not realistic, Cynthia - unless he's a plumber.
Guys don't care or notice those things.
It's women who check and clean out the crumb ( think that's the right word, but I may be wrong). Especially those with long hair.

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