ASK AUNTIE MJ: DESCRIBE THIS, PART TWO

Yesterday, I had this question from bunn1:

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.

And I attempted an answer. The trouble with something like this is that description is a BIG, BIG subject. A lot of these writing questions are BIG, BIG subjects, and it is difficult for Auntie MJ to screw them down into a nugget of PURE INTERNET WISDOM that you can stick inside of your head. People can spend their entire lives studying the art of the good description. Auntie MJ went to graduate school, where she analyzed descriptions in MOLECULAR DETAIL. She did other things, of course, but we won’t discuss those here. Another day, perhaps.

In my post yesterday, I wrote two questionable descriptions as a way of illustrating the difference between first and third person. They were questionable for a lot of reasons, but the one I am going to talk about boils down to a single word: perfect. I said perfect in both of those descriptions. And I did it for a reason.

Good writing is a question of taste. There really is no definition of good writing. One critic may love a book, and the next will throw it in the woodchipper. But there are a few things, a precious few, that we can say are generally true, most of the time, except when they are not. One is an OVERLY GENERAL DESCRIPTION. In this case, a word like “perfect” tells us nothing. Perfect, amazing, beautiful … (superlatives seem to be the thing here) … they don’t carry much information. Now, there is an argument that when people read these words, they just fill in whatever they want. I guess that’s fine, but by that token, why not just publish a book with blank pages and tell readers it is a do-it-yourself story?*

Good descriptions tend to be the ones that zero in on the details that really tell you something about the character. Yesterday, I suggested pulling a book off the shelf and looking for a good description, then figuring out why it was good. I thought I would try to help out with that today by showing you one I think is JUST DANDY. I went to my shelf of favorite books, grabbed one at random, and opened to the first page. This is the opening of The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (section one, called “The Last of Mr. Norris.”)

My first impression was that the stranger’s eyes were of an unusually light blue. They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared. Startled and innocently naughty, they half reminded me of an incident I couldn’t quite place; something which had happened a long time ago, to do with the upper fourth form classroom. They were the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules. Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything except his own thoughts: perhaps he imagined I could read them. At any rate, he seemed not to have heard or seen me cross the compartment from my corner to his own, for he started violently at the sound of my voice; so violently, indeed, that his nervous recoil hit me like a repercussion. Instinctively I took a step backwards.

That’s the opening to the book, and our introduction to Mr. Norris. All that happens here is that the two men look at each other. And it’s an eye description (there is a reason these are popular). This is a strangely meandering story that begins with the fact that the stranger has light blue eyes (unusually light blue). Then we get three more words: blank, vacant, scared. Scared? Why scared? The narrator searches his mind and can’t even come up with specifics (which is often the case in real life), only the vague memory of something that happened in school once, when another kid got in trouble. He recognizes the look. 

But Mr. Norris doesn’t seem to have done anything wrong. He’s just another guy on the train, one with light blue eyes. And he’s distracted. He’s deep in thought, and when the narrator speaks, Mr. Norris jolts so badly that it causes the narrator to jolt as well. Two violent words are employed in the next sentence: recoil and repercussion. Guns recoil. A repercussion is similar to a recoil—it’s the aftereffect of a blow. Basically, a small explosive has gone off between the two men in this quiet compartment. It actually forces the narrator to step back.

So what do we know about Mr. Norris, aside from the fact that he has light blue eyes? At this point, not a lot, in terms of how he looks. But we know there is something going on with him. We know that there is something distracted in his manner and that he looks vaguely guilty. Also, the first word used in his description is “unusually.” That is not a throwaway. Nothing about this is a throwaway. Mr. Norris is a strange man, the strangest of strangers. And maybe a little dangerous. Isherwood never says, “He was a dangerous guy!” Or, “He looked like he carried guns a lot!” But he gives us those two hints in recoil and repercussion

Later in this book, we meet Sally Bowles. (I should have mentioned that this is the book on which Cabaret is based.) Sally’s entire introduction, in particular her dialogue, tells us quite a lot about her. But here’s a tiny detail, right from the start. The narrator doesn’t focus on her face—he focuses on her hands while she dials the phone:

As she dialed the number, I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a color unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and dirty as a little girl’s.

This is a great illustration of picking the RIGHT DETAILS. This is Germany in the 1930s. Having BRIGHT GREEN FINGERNAILS is going to mark you as a special kind of someone. And though Sally has obviously put a lot of time and effort into bright green fingernails (you couldn’t just wander into the local nail place for that), her hands are a mess. She smokes, not weird for the time, but that doesn’t explain why her hands are so dirty. Sally takes care of some things, but not others. Her appearance is weirdly off balance. The more we get to know Sally, the more we will understand the lack of balance in her life; she’s enchanting, and she’s a mess. She’s unlike anyone else. It’s all there in that sentence.

Sally Bowles, as seen in the film version of Cabaret. The green fingernails were retained. The hands might also be dirty—it’s hard to tell from the photo.

Another key thing to note in that: it’s a contradiction. Polished and dirty. Same with Mr. Norris. The encounter is quiet and explosive. Descriptions that highlight contradictions build curiosity. 

HOW DOES THIS HELP YOU? Well, it shows you how details can work for you. Economy in writing is a wonderful thing—every detail can inform. And you don’t just have to look at the eyes or the eyebrows, and you don’t have to go on for pages. The more you read great descriptions, the more you’ll see that you have MANY OPTIONS on this front. There are many tools to add to your toolbox!

With clean hands,

Auntie MJ

* Note to self: do this immediately.