Characterization: More Than a Pretty Face

Last week, I discussed character descriptions that are almost entirely physical–they are focused on the character’s appearance. While they are good descriptions, they can be a missed opportunity. I’m a big fan of using character descriptions strategically, not only to describe the way a character looks, but to give us some insight into the character. So, I thought I’d go a bit broader this week and share a half dozen examples of character descriptions that go beyond the superficial appearance of a character.

Notice the different techniques the authors use to effectively reveal their characters’ personalities, struggles, flaws, and pasts. Also notice how much these descriptions accomplish, often in very few words. These descriptions take the writers’ characters from good to great.

JAZZ BY TONI MORRISON: VIOLET

“I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.'”

Photograph by Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company. From Marin Theatre Company’s 2019 production of Jazz. L-R: Dezi Solèy as Dorcas; C. Kelly Wright as Violet.

Thoughts: Here, Morrison introduces us to a character, Violet, and she does so without telling us what Violet looks like at all. She tells us a story about Violet’s past, and she does so in an interesting way. It’s not exposition; it’s a story from perhaps the most significant and traumatic day in Violet’s life. This makes it a small but fiercely engaging story in its own right, folded into and crucial to the bigger story. This powerful little story tells us more about Violet than a physical description ever could. Morrison deftly accomplishes characterization through the use of compelling backstory.

THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD:
JAY GATSBY AND DAISY BUCHANAN

If you’ve read The Artful Edit (and I suggest you do), you’ll know that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lot of time rewriting and revising The Great Gatsby until he got every detail just right. This kind of excellence isn’t a stroke of luck or innate talent–it’s achieved with a lot of hard work and perseverance.

Here is one of protagonist Nick’s descriptions of Gatsby’s smile from The Great Gatsby:

“He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Now, consider this oh-so-brief description of Daisy from the same novel:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.”

Thoughts: Neither of these character descriptions tell us what the characters look like. Not really. We aren’t told how Gatsby’s smile looks, whether he has a crooked mouth, laugh lines, thin lips, or shiny teeth. Instead, we learn how Gatsby’s smile makes people feel. As a reader, I feel the generosity of Gatsby’s smile–he’s one of those people who can make every person in a room feel like the only person in the room. He makes people feel seen. I get it. I can relate it to my own experiences.

And rather than learning what color Daisy’s eyes are or what color her lips are painted or what color her hair is, we learn that her face is “sad” and “lovely” and full of “bright things”–again, we come away with a feeling about Daisy and who she is.

Still, despite the lack of colorful adjectives, I find these descriptions quite visual–they invoke an image and a feeling. Here, Fitzgerald accomplishes characterization with the use of emotion.

JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTË: BLANCHE INGRAM

“Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine; she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments, but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books; she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment, but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her.”

Thoughts: This first-person description may, on its surface, seem more tell than show, but every line is thought-provoking and delves deeply into who this character is in a way that is not only interesting, but surprising and even shocking. Brontë’s use of metaphor is brilliant. This is the first-person protagonist/ narrator’s perspective–Jane Eyre is recounting her observations about Miss Ingram. So, as with all first-person narration, this passage not only tells us something about Miss Ingram, but it tells us something about the protagonist, Jane Eyre, too, and the thought it takes to consider that is engaging for readers. Also, how reliable is this description considering the inevitable bias of a first-person narrator? These added elements make the passage deeply layered.

“GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE” BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR:
MRS. FREEMAN

“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.”

Thoughts: Wow, right? Who needs a physical description of Mrs. Freeman. This description of her facial expressions tells us all we need to know about this woman’s character and about who this determined or stubborn woman is. Again, this is a brilliant use of metaphor–we picture Mrs. Freeman as a strong and immovable semi-truck.

“THE ROYAL CALIFORNIAN” BY TOD GOLDBERG: SHANE

“‘I need a place near a karaoke bar, if possible.’ He had a hustle he liked to do where he’d bet people that he could make them cry and then he’d bust out ‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five and every girl who ever had an abortion would be in a puddle. It didn’t make him proud, but he had bills to pay.”

Thoughts: This passage is from the first short story in Goldberg’s 2021 collection, The Low Desert, which was just released in paperback. Here, the protagonist, Shane, is a karaoke DJ making a telephone reservation at a hotel, and he asks for “a place near a karaoke bar.” Then we hear why this is important to him, and we learn a great deal about Shane in just a few lines: he’s a hustler, he manipulates people with music, he’s not necessarily proud of it.

In addition to what we can learn about characterization from this story, it’s a masterclass in point of view too. “The Royal Californian” is written in such a close third-person point of view that it almost feels like first person. We are deeply inside Shane’s head as we read–this is exactly where you want your readers to be. Remember that, with first person, everything the narrator says or thinks or feels can help characterize them. Even if they are talking about someone else, we are getting some level of insight into who the narrator is. Here, Goldberg accomplishes the same thing with a skillful close third, which is remarkable.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE BY VIRGINIA WOOLF:
CHARLES TANSLEY

“He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best–to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that, who was a ‘first rate man’ at Latin verses, who was ‘brilliant but I think fundamentally unsound,’ who was undoubtedly the ‘ablest fellow in Balliol’ ….”

Thoughts: What I love about this particular description of Mr. Ramsey’s friend Charles Tansley is that the third person narrator (here, Mrs. Ramsey) curates it–she gathers it like intel and compiles it like a dossier–all from information given to her by those around her rather than her own observations. Instead of telling readers about his appearance, Mrs. Ramsey relates a physically-adjacent description from the point of view of her children (“miserable,” “couldn’t play cricket,” “he poked” and “shuffled). The first two lines invoke an excellent visual image–we can see his bent, sickly body in our minds. Mrs. Ramsey’s oldest son, Andrew, contributes that Tansley is “a sarcastic brute.” Now we see him as broken-bodied, unhealthy, and ill-tempered. The characterization is then fully fleshed out through Tansley’s actions, specifically, the things he talks about on his walks with Mr. Ramsey. Although we haven’t really been told what Tansley looks like, readers now have a full picture of this character, inside and out.

WRITER TIP: Last week, I suggested you study the ways characters are described in your favorite novels. Also pay special attention to the ways your favorite authors describe characters beyond physical appearance. Skilled writers use backstory, action, dialogue, emotion, thoughts, metaphor, and many other literary devices to create vivid and engaging characters. Consider too how your story’s point of view plays into characterizing your protagonist, your narrator, and the other characters in your story.

Characterization: Lessons from Twilight

I recently binged all the Twilight movies–I’d never watched them before, but I was intrigued/tricked into watching them by my friend Ashley Corinne–she recently wrote a Twilight re-read series for GXRL magazine. Ashley compared her experience reading the books now, as an adult, to reading them then, as a teenager. It felt like a crash I both wanted to avoid and didn’t want to miss.

After watching the movies, which were more entertaining than I’d expected, I was interested to see how the descriptions of the characters in the books stacked up to the actors who’d been cast in the film roles. But I also wanted to see how effectively the descriptions were written. As a book coach who works with YA authors, Stephenie Meyer’s books felt like a missing part of my education. What drew people in to the Twilight saga, arguably the most popular YA series ever?

For the most part, the books are written in first person, which is common in YA, so these are 17-year-old Bella’s observations about herself and the people she encounters. All of these descriptions are taken from the first book in the series, Twilight (2005).

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF HERSELF

“Physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond—a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps—all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun. Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete. … My skin could be pretty—it was very clear, almost translucent-looking—but it all depended on color. I had no color here.”

MY TAKE: What I noticed about this description is that it’s all physical. We don’t get much insight into Bella as a person here. The phrase “I’d never fit in anywhere” is too common a trope to be especially effective in my opinion–many YA protagonists struggle with feeling different and not fitting in. I’d have liked to have seen more show versus tell–why doesn’t Bella fit in anywhere? For me, the fact that she’s an unathletic, ivory-skinned girl from Phoenix, Arizona, isn’t enough.

What we do get though is some tension, which is great, and we get it through physical description, which is unique. This girl who didn’t fit in “in the valley of the sun” has ivory skin, “despite the constant sunshine” in Phoenix. Her skin is “almost translucent” and she has “no color.” Her physical description is almost that of a vampire. Readers are drawn in here because, in this new place, Forks, Washington, she is about to meet a group of pale-skinned vampires. Will Bella finally fit in? Is this where she was always meant to be?

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF JACOB BLACK

“He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face. … He flashed a brilliant smile.”

MY TAKE: A purely physical description with zero characterization. We learn what Jacob looks like, but nothing more. Jacob is a member of the Quileute tribe and lives on a reservation outside of Forks. Jacob is described in a stereotypical way. The descriptions of Jacob’s hair as “long,” “glossy,” “black,” and “pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck,” his eyes as deep-set, his cheekbones as high, and his skin as russet (reddish brown) invoke a fixed, partial, and inadequate image of an American Indian character. The fact that his description is only physical in this passage and provides absolutely no characterization of Jacob as a person, coupled with the stereotypical physical description, make this passage problematic in my opinion.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF EDWARD CULLEN

“[Edward Cullen] was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others. … [H]is face was absurdly handsome. … His hair was dripping wet, disheveled—even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel. His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips. But his eyes were careful.”

MY TAKE: I like this description. We get a little more insight into Edward’s personality. We perhaps know more about him than we know about Bella at this point, through Bella’s description of him as “boyish,” her description of his face as “friendly” and “open,” and her description of his eyes as “careful.” I try to keep a lid on too many adverbs and adjectives, but I think the use of “absurdly” works here–it invokes an image. And I love the description of Edward’s hair. It’s visual, and I can picture him as a dark, brooding, James Dean-type character.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF CHARLIE SWAN

“He smiled back, his brown eyes crinkling around the edges. When Charlie smiled, it was easier to see why he and my mother had jumped too quickly into an early marriage. Most of the young romantic he’d been in those days had faded before I’d known him, as the curly brown hair—the same color, if not the same texture, as mine—had dwindled, slowly revealing more and more of the shiny skin of his forehead. But when he smiled I could see a little of the man who had run away with Renée when she was just two years older than I was now.”

MY TAKE: This description of Bella’s father is my favorite character description in Twilight. We learn not only what Charlie looks like, but who he is. And bonus, we get some backstory too, cleverly folded into this description rather than in pure exposition. In one short paragraph, we find out that Bella’s dad is a romantic who smiles a lot (thus the crinkles around the edges of his eyes). And we learn that he and Bella’s mom “jumped too quickly into an early marriage,” and that he and Bella’s mom had run away together when he was not much older than Bella. Note that anytime we get a character description from Bella’s point of view, we get some inadvertent characterization of Bella too. Here, we get a hint as to why Bella might not be so into the idea of marriage.

Overall, I found the initial descriptions of each character to be straightforward, physical descriptions. I’m sure the characters are developed in other ways throughout the novels, but for purposes of this discussion, these descriptions provide good examples of what to do and what not to do in your own writing. Readers want to engage with your characters deeply and to get inside your point-of-view characters’ heads, so keep in mind that physical descriptions of your characters are opportunities to tell us more than what your character looks like.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS

  • Readers want to get inside your characters’ heads and live vicariously through their experiences. Mix physical descriptions with information that gives readers insight not only into what your characters look like, but who they are.
  • Show us who your characters are versus simply telling us. In fact, physical descriptions aren’t always needed. Readers often like to imagine the way characters look. If you include physical descriptions, make sure they count.
  • Get creative with physical descriptions so readers can visualize the characters, e.g., Bella’s description of Edward’s hair–“he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel”–gives us an immediate image.
  • Don’t confine your descriptions to a single, introductory paragraph as each character is introduced. Sprinkle your descriptions throughout your book, in places where the characteristics you are describing are most relevant to the story.
  • Your narrative isn’t the only place to include character descriptions or information–try getting important character information across in dialogue too. Just make sure it makes sense, flows naturally in the context of the dialogue, and moves the narrative forward.
  • When writing characters outside your own experience, do your homework. Write a fully-fleshed-out and individual character, not a stereotype.
WRITER TIP: Every good writer is a good reader too. Pay close attention to the ways character descriptions are written and incorporated into the narrative in your favorite books. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit includes a great discussion on this topic. She uses examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to teach characterization done right.