I had a very talented writer friend who complimented me recently on my ability to describe people. I don’t know if he was sincere or not, but I opted to take the praise as sincere and allowed myself to feel flattered by it.
I think that describing people is a touchy subject in fiction. There has been a recent push back against description, as a flood of bad fiction has relied heavily on descriptions of extraordinarily beautiful or cliched characters in lieu of actual character development (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown, you son of a bitch). I have read some people who go so far as to say to not describe people at all, in order to avoid this admittedly unforgivable crime.
While we don’t want to lean heavily on character descriptions, the fact is that as long as a description supports the development of the character or supports the story in some way, then it not only should be done, but it must be done. Part of the point of the literary art, though, is to allow the reader’s mind to impose itself on your work so that the audience can connect with the piece, and so we don’t want to tell too much… but giving a general impression of the character’s appearance changes how the reader interacts with your character.
When I was working on my first novel, an unpublished and ridiculous NaNoWriMo project, I described my protagonist as tall and lean, with a blonde ponytail and goatee. My intent was for the reader to connect with the character as if he were a no good ex-boyfriend, or if they don’t tend to date men, the no good ex-boyfriend of a friend or family member. A lot of that connection can be established through dialogue and actions taken by the character, but the long hair and the dirty jeans helped set the readers’ expectations early, before they had a chance to get to know the character.
I also think that being able to describe a person’s body language is essential to setting mood and contributes to a reader’s perception of the action or dialogue, for better or for worse. Whether a character’s shoulders are slumped or not can make a huge difference in tone, and a really effective description of how someone is standing can make or break a scene. Note that I said “really effective” and not “long and detailed.”
To write effective descriptions of body language, it’s important to know what that language looks like. We all communicate using paralanguage every day, so we know kind of instinctively what body language is saying, but unless you consciously know what movements create that language, you’re not going to be able to describe it effectively, and you’ll be stuck just saying that someone stands dejectedly, or that they shake their head angrily, and there’s a lot of adverbs and it contributes almost not at all to the character or scene. They end up being stage directions rather than a seamless and useful description.
The problem is that in order to be able to effectively describe body language, you have to actually look at people. Feeling how you yourself move when you’re feeling something is not the same as seeing that same thing expressed, really seeing it, seeing what parts of the body move where and how. This is one of the rare situations in which women are at an advantage, because we’re often able to observe people without drawing a lot of attention to ourselves or seeming terribly creepy.
As an artist (sort of), I also can’t help but feel that some very basic anatomy is very useful for this. It’s not the sort of thing that you need a text book for… but there are certain parts of the body that are very expressive that get left out of things… even artists things. Ever look at one of those little wooden figure drawing models? Their shoulders are attached to their ribcage. Do you know how weird it would be if your shoulders had to move with your ribcage? For one thing, shrugging would disappear almost entirely. You also would not be able to reach your hand nearly as high as you can now, and sweet breakdancing moves would be out of the question. We owe a lot of the expressiveness of our torso to our floating shoulder girdles, and for a writer, it might be useful to know that when a character is reaching for something, the collar bone, which is a part of that shoulder girdle, could pop a bit. It might also be useful to know that there is a protrusion on the pelvis that is above the hip joint that can be visible beneath the skin on very thin people.
I do want to say that as a reader, I don’t remember any descriptions of characters’ clothing that I enjoyed. That doesn’t mean that any and all discussion of clothing is bad… after all, knowing whether a character wears a leather vest or a polo shirt can send useful cues to the reader. The point is that I don’t remember any of the effective clothing descriptions because they didn’t stand out, and I really think that’s key. If it serves the story, it should read as seamless and I shouldn’t notice it. Another thing; if you’re going to describe an article of clothing, describe it. You don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but not everyone knows what an empire waist is, or what a pencil skirt is. Telling me if a piece of clothing is flowing or fitted gives me something to work with without having to do a Google image search.
As always it is absolutely vital for you to understand that everything written here is a reflection of my own uneducated opinion, and I have no idea what I’m talking about most of the time. If you have a different opinion, I would be genuinely pleased to hear it.