How do great authors describe the physical appearance of their characters?
December 27, 2011 9:39 AM   Subscribe

How do great authors describe their characters' physical appearances?

Hi -- I'm looking for examples of how great authors describe their characters' physical appearance -- clothes, hair, facial expressions, etc. Obviously the way authors do this tells a lot about their characters, but I haven't pinpointed what makes a physical description GREAT. Any ideas?
posted by caoimhe to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this helps you, but to me no one has ever topped Charles Dickens' vivid character descriptions. They are pictoral: once you've read them, they can't be forgotten. The frequent humor used helps too.
posted by bearwife at 9:56 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

They pick the right adjective instead of attaching three or four mediocre ones. They don't do it in a tortured device manner (Susan stopped to look at herself in a mirror, and noticed...) or try to get it all at once in a wall of text, but let it build naturally from the story.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:52 AM on December 27, 2011

Well, one reason you haven't pinpointed any one thing is probably that it depends. Dickens' character descriptions are indeed great, but you probably couldn't get away with them in most contemporary writing.

Here, for example, is the second paragraph of Hard Times, which I just grabbed from Gutenberg:

"The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, - nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis."

So, compare that to a passage from Raymond Chandler's Playback, written a hundred years later in a different genre:

"A guy was across the table from her smiling and talking, and one look was enough to show that she knew him and regretted it. He was California from the tips of his port wine loafers to the buttoned and tieless brown and yellow checked shirt inside his rough cream sports jacket. He was about six feet one, slender, with a thin conceited face and too many teeth. He was twisting a piece of paper in his hand.

"The yellow handkerchief in his outside breast pocket sprayed out like a small bunch of daffodils. And one thing was clear as distilled water. The girl didn't want him there."

This is a whole lot shorter than the Dickens example (about a hundred words as opposed to a hundred eighty), and that's despite the fact that the narrator here is a private eye who's supposed to notice things. Also, Chandler interrupts the description twice to remind you that there's plot going on--she doesn't like this guy, and trouble is brewing.

These are both vivid descriptions, but they work in different ways and appear in different genres in different time periods. The Dickens description creates a mood and is also a sort of set piece--readers are supposed to enjoy it for its own sake, like a budget-blowing special effect. Chandler, meanwhile, never stops moving the plot along. What's more, Chandler maybe wasn't the best example to choose, as people sometimes make fun of his predilection for flowery similes and lengthy description--the very things Dickens, writing in a different context, was praised for.

So what makes a physical description great? Well, I think mostly what matters is whether it serves the piece of writing as a whole. What seems like a great description taken out of the narrative context may be a clunker if it interrupts the plot or disrupts the tone at just the wrong time. It's not all that hard to put together a list of physical traits that give a visual image of a character. What's hard is selecting just the right ones and no more to simultaneously create that image and advance the plot, or create a mood, or indicate a character's personality, or whatever you're trying to do within the wider narrative context.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 10:52 AM on December 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

Well I forget who it was but it was in the early days of movies. The backers asked the director why he had tight close-ups on hands or other physical aspects to introduce a character and the director said "that's how Dickens did it."

A workmans answer would be that good physical description follows the rule that everything should do two things: that the description should also inform us on the character or move the plot in some way. The female lead in Byatt's Possession wears her hair in a large turban, an eccentric look yes, but kept that way because she has a nagging fear that she's not being taken seriously because of her looks, repeating and enforcing her desire to distinguish herself as an academic via the research-chase plot of the book.
posted by The Whelk at 10:55 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

A great physical description reveals those things that could only be said of or by this particular character, and that support this particular story. Many good authors do this by having characters--as opposed to a narrator or an actual mirror--describe other characters. This has the benefit of conveying all sorts of things about both characters, without removing the reader from the story. A recent example is how Chip describes his parents Enid and Alfred as they arrive at the airport (The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen).
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 10:56 AM on December 27, 2011

Writing Workshop: Mailbag Edition - Get Into Character is a brilliant blog post on this exact topic.
posted by randomname25 at 10:59 AM on December 27, 2011

And since so much of this will be personal, I always cared for the economy of phrase. Edmund White described the putting of a large coat over a red dress as "extinguishing".

One interesting thing is that stories aimed at children or more action-y adventure type narratives tend to resist too much description of the main character beyond what is absolutely needed so the reader can project themselves into the story better. I don't think there is a single solid physical description of Coraline in Coraline outside of her rough age,gender, and smallish stature.
posted by The Whelk at 10:59 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

N'thing Dickens. Also, describing them through their actions and personality traits and the reactions of others to them vs hair, eyes and teeth. If you describe WHO they are, the reader will build their own picture; the hair color and eyes can come up casually if they matter to you, but I hate hate hate authors who start the first chapter by having the character do a once-over of all their physical attribute. Evanovich is fun reading but she does this and it's maddening, and I forget half of it in my own vision of the character three chapters on.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:51 AM on December 27, 2011

It was a long head.

It was a wedge, a sliver, a grotesque slice in which it seemed the features had been forced to stake their claims, and it appeared that they had done so in a great hurry and with no attempt to form any kind of symmetrical pattern for their mutual advantage. The nose had evidently been the first upon the scene and had spread itself down the entire length of the wedge, beginning among the grey stubble of the hair and ending among the grey stubble of the beard, and spreading on both sides with a ruthless disregard for the eyes and mouth which found precarious purchase. The mouth was forced by the lie of the terrain left to it, to slant at an angle which gave to its right-hand side an expression of grim amusement and to its left, which dipped downwards across the chin, a remorseless twist. It was forced by not only the unfriendly monopoly of the nose, but also by the tapering characten of the head to be a short mouth; but it was obvious by its very nature that, under normal conditions, it would have covered twice the area. The eyes in whose expression might be read the unending grudge they bore against the nose were as small as marbles and peered out between the grey grass of the hair.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
posted by dfan at 12:41 PM on December 27, 2011

I know this is kind of a ricochet from your question, but it drives me nuts when an author goes into detail about the characters. Charles Dickens has always been boring to me *because* he spends so much time describing things.

I prefer an author like Orson Scott Card who lets you into the character's head. You see their thoughts and how they interact with people and it lets you form your own image of them as you read.

Kurt Vonnegut seems to be the same way: you don't get a good description of the physical appearance of the characters, but you get a sense of what they are like from the way other people treat them.
posted by tacodave at 3:04 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

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