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Make POV Work for You: More on Character Description

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On yesterday’s post, Jess asked:

I know [character descriptions] need to be in there, I just don’t know when. Should it be before the first half? The first quarter? What I want you to do, of course, is make a table in Excel, telling me the latest point I can get away with describing each thing. You know “Eyes–before page 25,” etc. 🙂 The more the heroine notices his looks, the more “aware” she is, and I want that awareness to grow throughout the novel, not come out all at once. I guess I want to know how slowly I can go.

There’s no formula to say exactly when the full physical description should be given in a romance novel, and you’re right. . .to notice things as they’re going through the process of falling in love is a good thing—that’s definitely working within the parameters of deep POV. However, my personal opinion is that by the middle of the book, the reader should have a pretty clear picture of both the hero’s and the heroine’s physical looks—hair color, eye color, approximate height (relative to each other, anyway) and body shape (plus-sized, slender, athletic, curvy, built like a linebacker for the San Francisco ’49ers, etc.), in addition to the hero’s and heroine’s first impressions of each other’s overall appearance.

For example, when Anne meets George in Chapter 2 of Stand-In Groom, she notes that he’s much more slender than men she usually finds attractive. She’s already noticed his sharp profile and brown hair. When she comes face to face with him, that’s when she gazes into “eyes the color of light-roast cinnamon-hazelnut coffee” (and how sad is this—I had to pull out a copy of the book to look that up!). It shows not only her attention to detail (later, when she meets a potential bride, she immediately sizes her up by what type and color of wedding dress would look best on her), but also that she’s a coffee lover. So it’s not only showing the physical description of the hero, but, by using her unique internal vocabulary, it’s showing the reader things about her as well. (Just like when Major first sees Meredith in Menu for Romance and compares her brown dress and red hair to chocolate and strawberries, because he’s a chef, so food references are natural to him.)

Now, one thing to keep in mind is that I’m a visually oriented person. I want to have an immediate picture painted for me of what the characters look like. Here’s what Gail Martin wrote about it in Writing the Christian Romance:

Description not only shows readers what a character looks like, it also helps define the character’s personality type—eccentric, casual, uptight, prim, belligerent, obnoxious, flamboyant, unorthodox, or controlled.

Clothing colors worn are important in expressing who your character is. A quiet, demure young woman wouldn’t wear a tight red dress. A baseball cap on the heroine gives the image of a tomboy, while a blouse buttoned to the neck with a navy suit suggests someone uptight and in control. . . . Using characters’ apparel to reflect their personalities is an excellent technique.

Body posture and eye contact also reflect characterization. . . . Physical mannerisms can also allow the reader to see a character’s mood. . . .

In romance, description is often used to show the growing attraction between the hero and heroine. Readers can watch the growth of the romantic feelings of the hero through his description of the heroine or the heroine’s description of the hero. . . .

But something to keep in mind with that is: how will your readers know that your hero’s attitude toward your heroine is changing through what he thinks of her physical description if the physical description hasn’t already been given in his old view of her? There needs to be something for the new view of her to contrast with. Not saying he has to first think her ugly and then beautiful, but if he starts out noticing her brown eyes, then eyes the same color as his beloved hunting dog’s, the reader sees that the hero’s attitude toward the heroine is changing, even if it’s just on a subconscious level. (Of course, it has to be in the hero’s own internal language, since most guys aren’t going to wax poetic on the color of a woman’s eyes or hair.)

In See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit, Sarah Mlynowski and Farrin Jacobs put it this way:

What you choose to describe is often as important as how you describe it. As Jody Gehrman, who has written all of her novels in the first person, explains, “The lens the protagonist provides is all-important. What she notices in the landscape around her, what she finds funny or sad, who she thinks is hot—these are all details that come together and build the book, moment to moment.”

Think about it this way: when you meet someone, what do you first notice about them? It’s something that happens on a very subconscious level for most of us. But we immediately take in their “markers”—hair color, eye color, skin shade, height, body type, type/quality of clothing, cleanliness, and so on. Visually, we can do all of this in the span of a split second. In writing, it takes much longer. That’s where cultural and even stereotypical hints can come into play to start building the physical description of characters, as I detail in Creating Credible Characters–Culture Clash as well as the two Showing vs. Telling posts about description I linked to in yesterday’s post.

The only other answer I can try to give for this question is to tell you to read, read, read. Pick up a couple of books in your genre that you’ve read previously, along with a pad of Post-it Notes and a pen and whenever you run across a physical description of the main characters, mark it to see how and when the descriptions are given. Do this with at least three to five books and see if you can start to draw a consensus on how soon and how detailed the descriptions are given.

  1. Jennifer permalink
    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:48 pm

    Okay, I’m just throwing this in because I’m curious how many people do this. I read character descriptions, but I rarely actually see the character as the author has described them. After the first couple pages of a character I form my own mental picture, especially if there’s no description added in those first pages. I can’t tell you how many times my “imagination” has completely replaced the author’s descriptions. And when I finish a book and people ask me to describe a character as the author described them nine times out of ten I get it wrong.
    I know a little off track, sorry.

    What comes out more to me are characters personality – that will stay with me so much longer than the physical description. That said, I know there’s no way to get away with writing a book with out character “physical” description. One thing I’ve found that actually makes me remember a characters description more is when it relates back to a characters personality. The best example I can think of is Anne and her red hair in Anne of Green Gables right now. But even in my books I try and relate physical descriptions back to a personality trait of my character so I (and the reader) can hold on to that description in their head.


  2. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 4:57 pm

    Great post, Kaye! I really appreciate the input about the internal vocabulary. I am getting a lot out of your lessons, and often refer back to your previous ones.
    Thanks for all your hard work and sharing your wealth of wisdom. Gail’s book is excellent. I have a copy. So, when are you going to publish your writer’s wisdom?


  3. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 6:26 pm

    Wonderful post. I’m going back through my book and trying to incorperate this in my writing. How “poetic” can a guy wax, anyway? Especially if it’s a historical novel? There’s nothing worse than ultra-mushy-oh-so-not-guy-like descriptions, but judging from the classics written by men, a guy describing a gal in the 1800’s might do a wee bit differently than a man in the 21st century.


  4. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 7:56 pm

    I’m going to be doing a post on writing in the male POV soon (hopefully Thursday? Depends on how long the Show vs. Tell discussion lasts, cuz I still have at least one more post on that topic!). However, to get you started, go back and re-read the post about internal vocabulary ( and start coming up with words—especially adjectives and nouns—that are unique to your hero.

    I gave an example there from Ransome’s Honor where William uses nautical technology in his interior description of Julia, comparing the curve of her neck to the curve of the hull of a ship. Writing it that way doesn’t work, but in his POV, it does—because that’s his view of the world.

    Here’s a description of her from the viewpoint of the other POV male character, who is standing across the room awaiting her arrival in the belief that his mother is going to manipulate Julia into marrying him:

    When the crowd around them parted, Drake drew in a sharp breath. A gown of pale green that would not be out of place at St. James’s flowed and draped the figure of a Greek goddess. Her long russet hair, unfashionably loose around her shoulders and in a cascade of plump curls to her waist, framed a face tolerable enough to see across the breakfast table each morning. Although small, her mouth was well shaped. But the square set of her jaw and somewhat stubbornly pointed chin kept her from being a true beauty.

    He took several steps forward, then stopped. Why would a woman with wealth and tolerable looks such as hers remain unmarried at her age?


  5. Renee permalink
    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 11:58 pm

    You made a really good point in this post. I guess I never really thought about it much before, maybe it’s because I’ve only written research papers but I guess it’s extremely important to make a description of one person from a person of the opposite sexs’ point of view relevant to that characters interests. I guess a tomboy wouldn’t compare a guys eyes to the blue fabric of a dress but rather the shade of her favorite tee. Thanks for giving me something to think about!


  6. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 5:22 pm

    I hadn’t thought about using colors. Stephen King has a thing about not describing clothes, (I believe the phrase, “it’s a book, not a J. C. Penney catalog” was used) but it’s such a shortcut to the character’s personality. If it doesn’t tell anything, such as describing that your character wears old jeans to work in her garden–who wouldn’t?–that’s one thing, but if it furthers the reader’s insight, that’s another.
    However, it’s kind of funny when a sixty-year-old writer describes what a twenty-year-old character is wearing, and it sounds like something that would be worn by…a sixty-year-old writer.


  7. Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:32 pm

    I noticed the descriptions of George’s eyes and of Meredith in reading SIG and your excerpt from MFR. I liked how they said something about the POV character’s preferences and knowledge base. That’s a wonderful idea – to use description to tell the reader about both the person being described AND the one doing the describing.

    Is that a P&P reference (“Tolerable”) in your excerpt above? : )


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