Showing vs. Telling—In the Eye of the Beholder
When you see someone you find physically attractive, what is the first feature you notice? I personally am an eyes, smile, and height girl. (Hey, when you’re still single at 35, you’ve had plenty of time to learn these things over the years.) For me, the eyes are most important—a mouth can lie, but eyes always tell the truth—which is one of the reasons why many of my physical descriptions of characters in my writing center on the eyes and the expression conveyed by them.
Today we’re going to look at how we can describe other characters through our POV character’s eyes without reverting to telling.
Here’s an example of a “telling” description from Georgette Heyer’s Venetia:
He was a thin boy, rather undersized, by no means ill-looking, but with a countenance sharpened and lined beyond his years. A stranger would have found these hard to compute, his body’s immaturity being oddly belied by his face and his manners. In point of fact, he had not long entered on his seventeenth year, but physical suffering had dug lines in his face . . . A disease of the hip-joint had kept him away from Eaton . . . and this (or as his sister sometimes thought the various treatments to which he had been subjected) had resulted in a shortening of one leg. When he walked, it was with a pronounced and ugly limp . . . [skipping four LONG paragraphs of backstory] . . . Aubrey . . . let his coffee grow cold while he sat propping his broad, delicate brow on his hand . . . [and then it goes on for three more pages of backstory].
I bought this book because everyone keeps telling me how wonderful Georgette Heyer’s Regencies are—and since my historical is set in Regency England, I really should read them. I’m sorry to say I’m having a really hard time trudging through all of the telling narrative—especially in the first chapter which tells the heroine’s entire life history—and that of her two brothers—in addition to the longwinded description above. And the irony is: I still have no clear picture of what this “Aubrey” looks like—there is no hair color, no eye color mentioned. In this example, the author could have shown Aubrey’s looks through the initial interaction/dialogue he has with his sister—the bit about not getting to go to Eaton could have been remarked upon as they discussed the fact that even though he’s on summer holiday, he’s reading a Greek text. After the long paragraphs of backstory, he rises from his seat and crosses to a window—at which point the author once again describes the limp. That was where the idea that he has a limp should have been introduced. And, I believe, the hero is a stranger to the family who would know nothing about the hip disease. This is something that could come out in conversation between the heroine and hero (and perhaps does, but I haven’t gotten that far yet).
In Happily Ever After, here is how Susan May Warren shows the heroine Mona meeting the hero Joe for the first time:
She . . . squinted at the man. He had given his boots the once-over and obviously decided they were presentable because he stood there, all six feet of him, and grinned at her like a long-lost brother.
“Excuse me, but who are you?” Mona asked.
A reddish grizzle layered his chin, an interesting contrast to his short, tawny brown hair. He wore a jean jacket over a blue sweatshirt, the type her father used to wear in fall, and his faded Levi’s gapped with the comfort of wear. “I’m your new handyman.”
In this example, both the hero and heroine are given actions and expressions. She squints, he grins, they interact with each other. And, as is natural when meeting someone for the first time, she gives him the once-over as far as his appearance—six feet tall, red stubble, tawny hair, casually dressed. She also likens his appearance to her father—something that is important for the heroine who must, in the course of the story, come to terms with her father’s death.
Linda Windsor’s opening chapter of Along Came Jones deals with the aftermath of a car accident—the heroine has run her car off the road to avoid hitting a horse and she is disoriented:
Straight from one of those backwoods horror films was a character as unsettling in appearance as her circumstances—scruffy beard, dusty leather and denim, even his horse was patched. Whatever happened to those clean-cut, pistol-wielding heroes in the Westerns she’d watched with her dad as a child in Brooklyn? That’s what she needed now, not some backwoods nature freak in a beat-up Stetson—or someone even worse. She noted the lethal-looking knife sheathed on his thigh. Serial killer came to mind . . .
“Ma’am?” Although he seemed to be a polite serial killer. The concern etched on his shaded forehead by two arched brows seemed genuine. But were those rusty-looking stains on his worn jeans and shirt blood? . . .
At least he had all his teeth. And on closer look, his eyes twinkled beneath the dusty brown bush of his brow . . . Serial killers didn’t have twinkling eyes, did they? Criminals leaned toward those wild, elevator-doesn’t-go-all-the-way-to-the-top eyes. And their hair didn’t lie in rakish curls around their collars . . .
With a patronizing smirk surrounded by a week’s worth of stubble, he laid [the pistol] on the hood of her car. White teeth flashing as he untied the leather thong of his hunting knife, he put her in mind of a young Clint Eastwood—before a bath, shave, and much needed curbing of his swagger.
Not only does Linda show us what Shep looks like, but she also shows us Deanna’s disorientation and hysteria through her reaction to Joe’s looks, so the narrative here serves a dual purpose for showing. Not only are we seeing another character, but we’re learning about the POV character through the adjectives she uses, through the mental comparisons she makes, through the thoughts his looks generate in her head. Because this novel is a romantic comedy, even though she’s comparing him to a serial killer, the tone is light, funny. The adjectives (twinkling, rakish, patronizing, scruffy, nature freak) are lighthearted and show the reader that Deanna really doesn’t think Shep is a serial killer. If this were a romantic suspense or thriller, and Shep really were a potential serial killer but the heroine didn’t know it, using darker, more macabre adjectives would set a different mood: glinted or glittered instead of twinkled, twisted coils of hair instead of rakish curls, a menacing smirk.
All of the genres vary in the amount of physical description the writer should use. In romance, describing what the characters look like is a vital part of the genre expectations. In other genres, the descriptions can be more vague and given out in tiny increments throughout the first few chapters instead of close to the beginning, as it does in romance when the hero and heroine meet. Because I am not as familiar with the expectations of character descriptions in other genres, I recommend doing what I’ve done here . . . analyze recently published books by authors in your genre you think best represent the genre and see how much they describe the characters.
Okay, moment of truth for me again. Let’s see how I’ve done . . . here is when Charlotte sees Ned Cochrane in Ransome’s Honor, where I’ve tried to incorporate seeing the other character through action and interaction:
Something hard and heavy hit Charlotte’s midsection. She flailed her arms against it as she crashed to the cobblestones. Not two feet away, an explosion sent shards of wood and glass flying.
She could not breathe. Suffocation darkened her vision. The heavy object still lay atop her making movement—and breath—impossible.
“Are you hurt, miss?”
The heaviness eased marginally and the blackness receded. The object atop her resolved into a chiseled face, blond hair, and the most mesmerizing gray eyes she had ever seen.
“Miss? Can you hear me? Are you well?” Concern creased the broad brow.
“I . . . I cannot breathe.”
“Do you think something is broken—a rib? Shall I send for a surgeon?” His panic would have made her laugh if she had access to air.
“Sir, you . . . are why . . . I cannot . . . breathe!”
“I—oh!” He pushed himself up and extended his hands. “I do apologize, miss. I meant no—but are you certain—?”
Charlotte drew in two gulps of air before taking the officer’s hands and being hauled to her feet. Sunlight glinted off the plain gold epaulette on his right shoulder just at her eye-level.
“The cargo net was not adequately secured—” He waved his arm toward the wreckage of what looked like had been a fine piece of furniture—exactly where Charlotte had been standing. A crane and ropes swung wildly overhead.
“I thank you, then, for saving my life, Lieutenant . . .?”
He doffed his pointed-brimmed, tall-domed hat. “Cochrane, miss. Ned Cochrane.”
Charlotte wobbled; the lieutenant dropped his hat and grasped her arms to keep her from pitching over into the water. “Not the Lieutenant Ned Cochrane who served as first officer of the Alexandra?”
He grew two inches and his chest swelled. “I still serve as first officer of Alexandra—or at least as soon as she comes out of dry dock.” He picked up his hat, dusted it, and replaced it on his head. “But you have me at a disadvantage.”
Charlotte flourished a curtsey. “I am Charlotte Ransome. It is very nice to make your acquaintance.”
The ruddiness vanished from Lieutenant Cochrane’s face. “R—Ransome? You are the captain’s—little . . . sister.” He groaned and covered his face with his hands. “I’m done for.”
Do you have an inactive character description that you can incorporate into an active scene? I’d love to see your excerpts!