ASK AUNTIE MJ: DESCRIBE THIS

bunn1 asked you:

So I am having trouble developing my male character, I have a name for him and he has a distinct personality. However, I want to introduce his appearance somehow. Should I be doing this when we first meet him? How do I do it in a way that isn’t horribly boring and longwinded, but does him justice.

Well met, bunn1!

You guys are getting down to the day-to-day issues that Auntie MJ stares at regularly, because this is her job. And some of these things … I have no answers for them, because you can’t say there is one way to go about these things. But I can tell you that the question of how to explain what a character looks like is a pretty classic one, and one that I have discussed with many other authors. I don’t know what this is such a pain in the sit-upon, but it is.

First things first … is the story first or third person? Because that makes oodles of difference.

In third person, the all-seeing third person narrator can introduce this stuff pretty much whenever you like. Third person narrators are not involved in the action, and they can see more or less everything, so you have a lot of play. So you can do this:

Benelopy looked into Fangzolio’s perfect, completely trapezoidal eyes. He raised one eyebrow, also perfect. She had never noticed how wonderfully green and scaly he was. He was perfect, as only a perfect man-lizard could be.

"Three hundred cheeseburgers," she said, punching in the order. "Do you want fries with that?"

I’m not saying you’d want to do that, but you can.  

Now, let’s say you are writing in first person and want to see things from Benelopy’s point of view and you need to get in your description of Fangzolio. Same situation. There they are, face to face at the counter of Lord Burgerton’s Burger Palace. In first person, you have to think about what the speaking character would notice, and how he or she would express that. They can’t start talking all fancy all of a sudden. You don’t develop a huge vocabulary just because you are staring into the face of your one true lizard love.

So here’s Benelopy:

The first thing I noticed was his tongue. It was so long, so pointy. And it was a bright red, which stood out against his green skin. He stared at me and raised an eyebrow. He was a lizard. He was perfect.

Now, Auntie MJ is not suggesting these are GOOD descriptions, JUST IN CASE YOU THOUGHT SHE WAS. She was merely showing the point of view shift. (As to what makes for a good description, that is another matter entirely, which perhaps we will take up TOMORROW.)

What you asked, bunn1, is how do you do this? Do you do it when you first meet the character? Do you dump lots of info in one place? Well, you can do it however you like. My answer in ALMOST ALL CASES is to go to some books you love, crack them open, and look for the introductions of characters. See how much information is given, and how it is delivered. Then scan the book a bit, because I think you’ll find that descriptive information is often given in small doses throughout. You can see how the entire picture is painted.

All things are possible, bunn1. There are writers who can throw down a nine-page description of a character and you’ll read every word, because it is awesome. And there are writers who can nail a character in a line with such perfection that you fall backwards. There are also writers who will give you those nine pages or that single line, and you’ll feel like that is time taken from your life that you will never get back again.

In general, there is often some information given when the character is first encountered in full. Maybe the character peeks his head in to a scene, but we really don’t meet him for another chapter or two. In that case, you’d probably want to wait until that later chapter. The first encounter is a good time to get some of the info out. Maybe not all of it, but the major first impressions. You can develop from there.

Or not! That’s the thing about writing … absolutely anything can work, given a solid execution. 

Was this helpful? Auntie MJ has more to say on this, but she will continue it tomorrow, in DESCRIBE THIS PART TWO, REVENGE OF FANGZOLIO.

Trapezoidally,

Auntie MJ