11.19.13cube

Writers usually have a clear idea of what their characters look like but it’s a good idea to weave description in, if at all. That is, you don’t need necessarily to describe a character physically at the beginning of your story.
Numerous editors complain that many a writer starts out: “Her windswept blond hair surrounded her lovely face…” or have a character looking in a mirror, “I saw in the glass my windswept blond hair surrounded my lovely face.”
Don’t do that!
For one thing, not everyone likes blond hair or beautiful characters.
For every rule of writing, there are exceptions that disprove the rule. My prime example is the first page of Gone With The Wind where Margaret Mitchell starts out, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed that.” She takes the entire page to describe Scarlett’s hair color, eye color, physiognomy, and especially her demeanor. The latter factor—Scarlett’s feisty, flirtatious character—saves this page from cliché.
Romance books often depend on hair and eye color because, I suppose, people, especially young people, often fixate on those features. I knew a young man in school who was blond, and he only wanted blond girlfriends. For others, it’s just the opposite—dark-eyed, dark-haired people want a blond.
Don’t be that shallow person. Or that shallow writer, unless you have a point to make about a shallow character.
Some books never describe the physical appearance of characters, depending on the reader to create the character in the reader’s mind’s eye. I’m lukewarm about books like that.
Describing a character through another character’s eyes, though, can be an intriguing way to share that description with the reader because the other character will have a reaction to that person’s appearance and demeanor.
Now your description has narrative power.
Take this example from Ethan Frome, by one of my all-time favorite writers, Edith Wharton, also on page one:
“It was there (in Massachusetts) that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the ”natives” were singled by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.”
In the next paragraph, on page two, a villager tells our narrator “He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up. And that’s twenty-four years ago….”
I read this novella (it’s only 181 pages) in high school and reread it periodically. Wharton’s tight, bold prose influences me to this day.
Are you drawn into the character after an introduction like that and, on page two, an inciting incident like that—the smash-up that left him emotionally damaged and physically lamed?
Absolutely!
My dark fantasy story, “Aurelia,” published in the January-February 2018 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has my point-of-view character describe the character of Aurelia the first time he sees her in his sophisticated downtown law office:
“She sat in the gleaming lobby, cross-legged in a chrome-and-leather chair, rocking back and forth. Wet hair hung in strings around her face. Had she just come from a workout at Gold’s Gym down the block?
Then Robert noticed splashes of mud on her bare legs.
Mud? The morning was clear and fair. California was in the middle of a drought.
Her pale gold dress looked as thin as antique silk. Her broad features seemed inbred. A crooked eye beneath one feathery brow higher than the other. A pointed nose above a supple pout. She sniffed—or was she nibbling?—at a Gerbera daisy she held pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Her fingernails were filthy.”
Once again, this is description from another character’s point-of-view and raises a bunch of story questions. But we know little about how Robert looks, his hair color or eye color, except that he easily picks up women, even after he’s married. We know him by his actions and we can well imagine him.
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful YA, the author barely mentions the character’s appearance other than she’s small and dark like most of the people in her district. The spare description was so powerful, though, fans of the book strenuously objected to the actress Jennifer Lawrence, tall and blond, playing Katniss.
So there you have it. I prefer a vivid description but couch it in a way that reveals plot and inner emotions. You can’t go wrong with that!
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