Tag Archives: description

Who Cares What Color Their Eyes Are?

Really – who the hell cares what color their eyes are? Heck, most of us don’t even remember the color of our own spouse’s eyes. I think they are sort of a grey green and mostly I remember that because she told me and it’s important when picking out colors for her to wear. When I meet a person I don’t say “gee, it was nice to meet Bob, he had brown eyes.” I don’t remember people by their eye color or their hair color or their height; unless it’s unusual for some reason. So why is it so many writers write lines like this:

Darkly handsome Antonio, with bronzed biceps and chiseled jaw, gazed deeply into Allura’s violet eyes, so big and moist, fringed with thick luxuriant black lashes.


I’m pretty much done with a book right there, aren’t you? This kind of description tells us nothing except that the characters are artificially good-looking and probably going to be one dimensional. I bet he’s sardonic and prone to misunderstanding the heroine until he takes her roughly, and she’s rebellious and spunky, but she’ll yield in the end.

Writing the introduction for a character that starts with a physical description is, generally, a pretty good signal that whatever follows will be clich├ęd and hackneyed. Yet I have seen decent young writers make this mistake and follow it with a ripping yarn. They’re going to be fortunate indeed if they can get away with this and expect someone to keep reading. I don’t know about you but nothing about the color of the heroines eyes tell me much about her personality, and eyes simply are not windows on the soul. You can’t see anything in their depths. All the nuances of expression we human beings observe in each other is caused by hundreds of muscles in the face causing the skin around eyes and brows to crinkle and furrow, the turn of a mouth. Body language is a whole body affair and so the tilt of a shoulder, the jut of a hip, or a slouched back is telling us more than a study of an iris.

Here is a great quick sketch of a person:

He is not a guy who cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing not to care. He has angular eyebrows, and tousled hair. His disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly with a gentle Texas twang.

No hair color there, no eye color either, but you get a real sense of a living breathing person with personality. I took this quote from a description of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey by Nick Paumgarten in the January 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker. The writer has picked out some salient features because they stand out and they tell us more about John Mackey than a mere physical description. After reading the article I know a lot about Mackey but not a thing about the color of his eyes. Tousled hair: he’s not fastidious about his appearance. Angular eyebrows: gives him an intense look that accents what the author said about the prickly undercurrent underneath the serene casual appearance. Speaks softly? As Whole Foods CEO he’s knows people are listening. He doesn’t have to shout.

Here is how F. Scott FitzGerald describes his tragic hero Jay Gatsby for the first time:

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 external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so 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. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression he that he was picking his words with care.

No idea what color his eyes are – well probably he’s blond and blue-eyed and that’s because he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, old sport. This description, that concentrates so much on the smile and how it affected our narrator, while seeming spare in physical details actually tells us a great deal about Gatsby. He’s self-made, very self-conscious, and yet he has a gift of making someone feel very special. Gatsby himself is very concerned with the external: his appearance, his speech, his house, but at the core there seems to be something empty. This image of Gatsby is then amplified and then drawn to its tragic ending throughout the rest of the book. Even more cunningly FitzGerald doesn’t even introduce Gatsby until he’s fueled our interest in through several chapters of mystery and gossip about the elusive Gatsby.

The fact that the movie version tends to stick in the mind of anyone that has seen and read the book is another good example of what it really shouldn’t matter what color your heroine’s eyes are. Casting Robert Redford as Gatsby was an admirable choice because his boyish good looks, so blond, really mirror FitzGerald’s characterization of his protagonist. Movies are a visual medium that need to make the choice about exactly what a person looks like whereas books do not. But once that choice has been made it becomes fixed in the mind. I cannot read The Great Gatsby without seeing Robert Redford but if I had read the book prior to the movie I might see a dark Gatsby, a small Gatsby, a burly Gatsby. My own mind would add details to the important clues that FitzGerald has drawn me and this internalized version of Gatsby would hold far more meaning to me than one created for me of whole cloth.

If you do end up picking an eye color or hair color for your heroine or hero it should mainly be a detail for your own imagination, and unless there is a pressing reason otherwise, probably isn’t important for your reader. How many times have you heard a person exclaim over the movie version of one of their favorite reads that the director got it all wrong? It clashes with their own internalized version of the story. What the author does is paint enough of a picture to grab their reader’s imagination and desire to know about the character, and then the reader fills in the rest, creating a truly original symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. You need to know more about your characters than you write down, and what you end up giving the reader should be revealing of their inner nature, what makes them unique, not what color their eyes are. Better you should tell us just how they organize their sock drawer.

Multidimensional Writing Experience

There is a lovely multidimensionality in starting up a new character for a collaborative writing/role play project at Pan Historia that feeds all my creative urges at once, nearly. There are two main roads into a new character: getting an idea for a character and then finding a place for them to dwell; or finding a story you really like and then finding a character to fit in. Creating a new character from scratch is the most creatively demanding because of the added dimensions of home page design. I love kitting out a new page for a new character from finding the right graphics, or creating them from scratch if one has a bit of tech savvy with a graphics program, and then designing a fun informative home page from all the different components.

Home pages are useful. I think of them as character biographies where you can get your decorating urges taken care of and impart something useful about your character in turn. My Wyatt Earp home is both western in theme and includes useful historical quotes about Wyatt from people that actually knew him. My Gabriel Oak home is less about the personality of the character but is very informative about some of my inspiration for the character. Gabriel is an interesting character inspired both from literature and from the movies. Those familiar with Thomas Hardy will recognize the source of the character’s name, and of course the face I use is from the movie version of the novel “Far From the Maddening Crowd”. I’m not a fanboy however and Gabe is his own character. In one earlier incarnation he was an artist with a supernatural angelic side living inside him. When he moved on to a different story he became a drunk, the human mask, of the Archangel Gabriel.

Of course some characters live in many different role play and collaborative stories and one home page can hardly do justice to all their diverse lives. That’s why the profile pages were originally added as a ‘room’ off the main home page. These pages include sections for each novel that a character appears in so that the owner can give a little biographical detail. The beauty of a site like Pan, though, is that with so many interactive features the creativity of the individual takes over and tools are always adapted to the needs of their owners. I don’t try and force people to use Pan the way I anticipated. Instead I’m often adapting Pan to fit in with the needs of the users.

A lot of people reserve their character biographies for the forums of the novels themselves and use the home pages as a place to show off all their awards, prizes, badges, and the little graphical gifts that people make for one another. This is probably a similar approach that many users of MySpace employ, but it’s fun nonetheless. Of course it doesn’t really help me, as a writer, when I click on their home to see more about their character, but usually I can at least some kind of sense from the avatar they have chosen to represent their character. Other people actually write out character sheets. I have never employed one of those. I like to get a general impression, and then let inspiration take its course when I’m writing. If I get too locked down on who I think a character is I find that the work become stifled and creativity shuts down.

I guess I can sum up what I’m trying to say is that using the internet and a web site like Pan Historia allows me and my fellow writers to add layers and dimensions to our writing experience, like creating images and home pages to enhance the experience. The way that any particular writer or role player chooses to implement these tools is often going to be as unique and different as the perspectives we bring to our writing and characters.

Advice: Don’t Always Take the Advice of Experts

Wayne Thibaud

Wayne Thibaud

I read a lot of writing tips, and as you might have noticed by now I even write a few. My credentials might be slimmer than some of the other folks who tell you what to do and what not to do when it comes to writing, but I’ve been writing fiction for a long time and I have sat at the feet of some of the best. So here is my advice for what it is worth: do not always heed writing tips.

One of the most common tips for beginning writers is to trim out the fat, kill your darlings, and stick to the action. On the surface this is a great piece of advice. After all modern readers get bored quickly in our micro-blogging and text messaging age and beginning writers often make the mistake of including lots of dull and go nowhere description. But if you go back the basics and actually read the classics you will find that some of the most beautiful and inspiring passages of fiction are spent in consideration of a landscape, or describing the interior of a room, or even the rambling thoughts of the author suddenly intruding. Most of that wonderful description would be marked with red pencil and be left on the floor by conscientious modern editors getting to the action.

So if it’s going to be cut – why include it? First of all there are other ways to get published these days, but second of all just the act of writing it can be a learning experience. Third of all if you’re an artist you just might succeed in getting that description to be essential to the heart of your story and get it past the well meaning editors. We’re not all meant to be mean, clean and spare as Elmore Leonard.

Don’t add fillips of deathless prose description just for filler, and don’t get caught up in something so mundane that it serves zero purpose, but do remember that you’re painting a picture in your reader’s mind. There is an art to what to reveal and what to conceal. You might well leave out detailed descriptions your character’s appearance, but create a deep visual of their bedroom or workspace:

Scattered on Wyatt’s desk were discarded pistachio shells. Weaving in and out of a tangle of electronic wires were opened bills, read then jammed into available spaces to be ignored. In a green glass bowl of pebbles laid the thick silver band he usually wore.

This tells us more about Wyatt than any description of his commanding brown eyes, agile capable fingers, or manly chest would ever do. There is a purpose to the description – to show us a bit about who Wyatt is without resorting to language like: “Wyatt was a slob, and never threw away or filed his bills. He loved eating pistachio nuts. He always took his ring off when working because it was too tight.”

The best advice on writing is always from the best writers. If you want to know how to write, read and read from the best. Examine their novels, short stories, poetry. Take it apart to see what makes it tick. Ask your self questions as you read. Read it twice. The first time should always be for the sheer pleasure of it, but then read it again and tease it apart to see how that writer kept you enthralled and engrossed. How did they break the rules and get away with it? How did the flights of seemingly irrelevant description or musings on the meaning of life actually enliven the piece for you, or would you have used the red pencil there (not all great writers are infallible)? Writing tips are a place to get started, but don’t let them mold you into a boring pedestrian writer that has no voice of your own.

And you know what else? It’s ok if you write a few books before anyone ever wants to read them. Like any other art form else there is an apprenticeship to writing.

Writing Unique People

What makes one character unique from another? It has to be more than job, looks, or slang in their speech. In order to really create a truly unique individual with a distinctive ‘flavor’ all their own you have to get down deep into the emotional heart of them. Too often I see writers make the error of just relying on an external description of their character to carry off personality but really what we look like physically is not predicated by character except in the minor detail. It’s more likely to be found in the crow’s feet, the way we style (or don’t) style our hair, and how we wear our clothes.

I could probably write a whole thesis on the way people dress. There is tendency for those members of society who care about their appearance to suggest that people that are unkempt, dirty, or slobby don’t care what people think of them. This couldn’t be farther from the truth in most cases. The unkempt is just as much a ‘fashion’ statement as the well-groomed. Very often the individual is screaming out a political message or maybe just an antisocial “fuck you” at the world. Remember being a teenager and all you could think about was getting laid? There is no such thing as a complete lack of self-awareness in the average human being. Baggy unattractive clothes are often attempts to hide self-perceived flaws from the world: chubby, unfashionable proportions or breasts even.

Many writers will turn to describing ‘flashing sparkling green eyes’ or other such physical attributes common to romantic thinking, but more important than eye color is where the gaze falls. Do they meet your eyes when they look at you or do they glance away in shyness or discomfort? When we look at the human face there really is no such thing as twinkling eyes or a ‘cold’ look, yet the entire expression can seem to imply such, but there are a lot more choices out there too: weary, tired, haggard, bags under the eyes, dull eyes, dust on the eyelashes.

I am not suggesting, however, and this is important, that we clutter up our narrative with tons of description. Over describing your character leaves the reader with little to do and still doesn’t reveal their true distinctiveness. Description should be used like seasoning – in moderation unless you’re making curry. Throw in a comment about the stray few strands of hair in front of the eyes that annoy the observer and don’t seem to bother the owner and you’re giving us a little taste of that person’s character and mood. Mannerisms or nervous ticks can be useful but, again, should not be overused and not everyone has one. We do all have a way of moving that is distinctive. Is your character jerky like a puppet on strings or do they move with the ease of a trained dancer?

I don’t necessarily recommend the character sheet or the detailed character biography before you start writing, but if it works for you, by all means, use it as a tool. In my case I just try to imagine my character visually and then as I see the ‘play’ unfold I ‘see’ what they are doing and I try and capture the little quirks and visual clues. I like my character to surprise me with what they might do next so I don’t care to pin them down with a character biography that is more than just a quick sketch. I can fill in the details as they come to life and they tell me who they are.

How a character performs tasks is much more telling then what they look like. Are they quick and sloppy, or quick and brilliant, slow but methodical, clumsy but inspired? Don’t tell us, show us. Does Bobby Schwartz type with two fingers or did he somewhere learn to type? Does he punch the keys emphatically or do his fingers brush softly over the keys? Does he often use the backspace keys to correct his errors? Is he looking at the keyboard or does he stare fixed at the monitor? In the case of Bobby Schwartz, one of my characters, I know he spills a lot of stuff on his keyboard because he eats while programming, and that means he has a box of old sticky keyboards (he doesn’t throw anything away) and a few new ones in boxes, or recycled ones stacked on his cluttered shelves so that he doesn’t lose time working if the keys start to stick.

In the case of Bobby he is partially inspired by me, partially by programmers I have known, but also he’s a mix of other people I have known. I also tend to eat and drink when I’m working at the computer but I have learned not to spill too much on the keyboard, I have a little brush for cleaning the dust bunnies out of it, and I never have a back up keyboard so disaster means I’ll have to lose a couple of hours in all probability to go get another keyboard from the local Staples.