I used last week’s post to introduce the topic of descriptive passages. I focused on setting, but my point was one that works for all aspects of storytelling, as I hope this week’s post will demonstrate. Keeping in mind Vernor’s Law (at any given time in a book we should be accomplishing at least two and preferably all three of the following: furthering plot, developing character, filling in background) I tried to show with last week’s novel excerpts how a descriptive passage, rather than slowing down narrative progress, actually allows us to reinforce the work we do on plot and background.
I’m going to touch on many of the same themes this week as I discuss character descriptions, but I’ll also bring elements of point of view and character development, drawing on some of the stuff Edmund mentioned in Saturday’s post. I would also refer you to a couple of posts I wrote last year. One was a comparison of a character sketch and a character portrait, and the other, which appeared the following week, dealt with character sketches and point of view.
As with descriptions of setting, we don’t want our descriptions of characters to become mere laundry lists of attributes. Passages that deal solely with appearance, or even with personality quirks will wind up stalling our narrative, detracting from the story, which of course is exactly what we don’t want. Instead, character descriptions should give us insights into the person being described; they should reveal something of his/her personality or morals or motives that touch on plot points, even if those plot points don’t fully manifest themselves for another three hundred pages. But even more, those passages should also reveal something of the character through whose eyes we are meeting the person being described. In other words, a character description should tell us something about the person being described AND the person doing the describing. A couple of examples:
Again, these come from Thieftaker, the first D.B. Jackson publication, which will be released in May 2012. Ethan Kaille, our hero, arrives at the Dowsing Rod, the tavern owned by his lover, Kannice Lester. Kannice does her best to keep miscreants and troublemakers out of her establishment, which is a problem for one of Ethan’s closest friends, Diver Jervis:
Of all the people Ethan knew who frequented the Dowser, Diver came closest to getting himself banned from the tavern. He did so with some frequency, and, as Kannice had pointed out on more than one occasion, if it wasn’t for Ethan’s friendship with the man, Diver would have been tossed out into the streets long ago. He sat alone at a table near the back of the tavern. Catching Ethan’s eye, he raised his tankard, his eyebrows going up.
Ethan had to laugh. The evening mist and a few stubborn midges still clung to his waistcoat, and already Diver was asking him to buy his next ale. Ethan crossed to the bar.
The dynamic among these characters — Ethan, Kannice, and Diver — is complicated, and central to the development of all three. Already we get a glimpse of it here. Diver is a mooch and a rogue, and though Ethan recognizes his friend’s faults, he also is soft-hearted enough that he tolerates and even caters to Diver’s bad habits. This is one of Ethan’s weaknesses (not just with Diver, but with others as well) — it explains the darkest elements of his past, and haunts him throughout the novel. Kannice, on the other hand, disapproves of their friendship, and sees Diver taking advantage of the man she loves.
Later in the same scene, Ethan tells a bit more:
He was a handsome man. His face was still youthful, his black curls were still untouched by gray. Kannice’s hostility notwithstanding, women were drawn to him. He was tall, lean, and dark-eyed, and he had a winning smile and a fine sense of humor. But if Ethan had a daughter, he would have done everything in his power to keep Diver away from her.
Ethan isn’t blind to Diver’s faults, as that last line makes abundantly clear. And in fact, his suspicions of Diver inform a central plot point that weaves through the entire novel. Notice, also that we now know what Diver looks like, but the physical description isn’t given for its own sake, but rather is used to reinforce a more important point. These two passages total less than two hundred words, and yet they manage to convey a great deal of information about Diver as well as about our POV character (with some sense of Kannice thrown in as a bonus).
Let’s try another, this one from Rules of Ascension, the first book in the Winds of the Forelands quintet.
A moment later Kearney entered the great room with the duchess on his arm. He was dressed as if for battle — appropriate for a banquet honoring one he sought as an ally. He wore a simple black shirt and matching breeches, and the silver, red, and black baldric worn by all dukes of Glyndwr. He was smiling broadly, his youthful, tanned face ruddy in the firelight and his hair, silver before its time, shining with the glow of the torches mounted on the walls. He was not particularly tall or broad shouldered, but to Keziah he looked like a king.
This description of a Kearney, Duke of Glyndwr, is almost entirely concerned with physical attributes, but I’ve tried to make it more than simply a list of features. His clothes convey something of his personality — he is a warrior, but also a strategist who uses his military prowess as a diplomatic tool. The silver hair and youthful features are meant to say something about him as well — strong, but also wise and charismatic. And that last line, which foreshadows a key plot point, tells us much about Keziah, our point of view character, and her relationship with the duke.
Sometimes our descriptions are just that: descriptions. There is nothing wrong with taking a line or two to tell readers what a new character looks like. It’s not always possible to imbue every descriptive passage with deep meaning, and readers like to have at least some small sense of what a person looks like when they read about him or her. But when we deal with key characters, we want to do what we can to convey more: dynamics among characters, plot points, or simply insights into deeper aspects of our characters’ personalities. As with descriptions of setting, a well-placed detail in a character description can go a long way. A mysterious character wearing spectacles turns his head, and lamplight catches the glass in such a way that the spectacles momentarily turn opaque. An otherwise attractive man or woman has a dark scar on his/her temple. A young girl seems happy and self-assured, but she refuses to make eye contact. One can draw all sorts of meanings from any one of these details, and suddenly the character in question has depth that he/she didn’t have before: a secret, a past, a hidden agenda.
But more than that, such details also reveal something of the character who notices them, and of the trajectory the characters’ story is going to take. Stating the obvious: Point of view, which we at MW have written about repeatedly, allows us into the minds of our characters. All that our POV characters see reflect not only on the observed, but also on the observer. When we write description we need to see everything and everyone as our character would. In this way, descriptive passages convey to our readers far more than just what there is to see at at a given moment. And that, of course, is the point.
So what have you done with your character descriptions? How do you tell your readers more than just what someone looks like? Care to share a short (100 words or fewer) example?David B. Coe