Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...

...show me what I look like so I can monotonously relate my physical appearance to the readers?
Does that sound familiar?
I have seen so many articles and rants about this thing, so I’m not going to write about that per say. What I do want to do, however, is look over character descriptions.
Do you like to describe your characters at the first glance? A long winded paragraph over every detail of the character’s hair, face and clothing? Or a brief description before continuing?
A long time ago, I used to bombard my scenes with long character descriptions, filled with fancy words and flowing observations. At least there was never a mirror involved. However, at some point, I read that you should not include such long paragraphs about their appearance, so I left most of out. I mentioned a quick hair colour in a passing sentence, or an eye colour as the character looked at something. Then that too, seemed too much, and my descriptions just faded away, until I almost never physically described the characters.
But I recently realised that this is not necessarily a good thing. Too much description is bad. But perhaps there is merit in the physical appearance.
Some people say that it does not matter what your characters look like, (except in some rare circumstances) so why share the information? However, that’s not necessarily true. Appearance often characterises people, either in the eyes of the beholder, or it holds a key to the image that the said character has of him or herself.
When you could say, “John walked in, his eyes darting over the room”, rather say, “John walked slightly slouched, dark clothes wrapped around his wide frame, and his shaded eyes darting over the room.”
Using the first sentence, you know close to nothing of this person, save that he is suspicious or nervous.
But by explaining how he looks (even if it is an exaggeration) will immediately convey the opinion that the beholder has of the character. It also shows you something about a character and give you the feel for this character. A extrovert joker would not be wearing dark clothes and looking around suspiciously. People often characterise themselves by what they look like.
Let’s say you rewrite the above like this, “John walked with a slouch. He wore a dark blue shirt over black pants. A dark green jacket covered his upper body while his black hair cast a shadow over his grey eyes that flitted over the room.”
This is not good at all. The fact that John wears a dark blue shirt and black pants does not help you in any way. “Dark clothes” gives you more. The specific colour is not the point of interest. Dark clothes are preferred by certain types of people.
To go even further, the appearance of the character can create an illusion of who the character really is in the eyes of the reader. Then the truth is gradually or explosively revealed, making a fuller, more pleasantly surprising character.
For most purposes, appearance does not matter, but it can certainly create a better image of who someone is, and how that someone conveys himself to the world. Ergo, what mask he wears.

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