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III. CHARACTERS
 

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2.Physical Appearance

 
(ii) EXPRESSIVE DETAILS
 

Passpart details aren’t exciting; what would be exciting would be to capture the full exact impression of a face. I mean, the kind of impression that depends on minute lines around the eyes, a particular faint twist to the mouth … the kind of grooves etched in by habitual expressions. Faces can tell you so much. A cheery-looking face may not go with a truly cheerful personality—but there will be clues!

Here’s where I suffer another bad case of film-envy. It’s so simple for a director to capture all these expressive details in a single shot. But with language, it’s an uphill struggle all the way.

It’s not only that there aren’t many words and they aren’t very exact, it’s also that the words don’t necessarily bring a picture with them. I’ve heard it said that ‘X’s eyes are too far apart’, and I know what it means in theory, but I have no idea what it actually looks like. In real life, I’m sure I could recognise it as a certain appearance that some faces have, but I’ve never conceptualised it.

Perhaps it’s like the language of wine. There are technical words that mean something to experts in the field, but not to the common and garden drinker like me. I find faces fascinating, different kinds of faces, and I often form very clear pictures for the faces of characters I want to describe. Only I can’t describe them. *#@%#*!!!

The best I can do is capture a highlight detail or two, a distinctive detail of a kind that would never feature on a passport or a police description. For example, a projecting lower lip, or an upper lips that lifts slightly over the front teeth.

That’s only a beginning, though, because a projecting lower lip might suggest aggression, but with a tiny variation could suggest sensuality. An upper lip that lifts slightly over the front teeth can be expressive of vulnerability, but with a tiny variation can look predatory. See what we’re up against? Words are blunt instruments for conveying those tiny variations.

But all is not lost—the personality can direct the picture. If we know a particular character is aggressive, that will shape our imagination of a projecting lower lip. If we see someone’s upper lip lifting in a moment of vulnerability, that will give us our clue for a general picture.

If the worst comes to the worst, it’s always possible to use words like ‘vulnerable-looking’ or ‘predatory-looking’, ‘sour’ or ‘resigned’, ‘severe’ or ‘hesitant’.

Similes can help too. Vail in The Dark Edge smiles like a cat—and I think, I hope, that the cat association influences the reader’s overall picture of her.

I don’t know if this would be useful for anyone else, but I sometimes work with hidden similes. In a recent book (no title, because I want the simile to stay hidden!) I imagined one particular character as turtle-like. The comparison never actually appeared in the book, but it shaped the way I described him all the way through.

OTHER PHYSICAL APPEARANCE TOPICS

(i) PASSPORT DETAILS

(iii) HOW &WHERE?

Other Characters Topics

1. Creating Characters

3. Character Point of View

 

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Richard Harland.