Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Where Am I? And What Do You Look Like?

Does your protagonist have blonde, black, red, or brown hair? Is he/she tall or short, fat or skinny, pimply or clear skinned? What a plethora of choices: athletic, sickly, handicapped, bull-headed, clumsy, elegant—oh the possibilities! How does an author choose?

Varied genres handle the task of portraying characters in differing ways. Chick lit is big on meticulous description—right down to depicting outfits and shoes and hairstyles and the like. I don’t read YA, but imagine description must play an important role, as adolescents and teenagers tend to be obsessed with appearance. When it comes to more literary fare, some schools of thought recommend a light-handed approach when it comes to portraying the main character. Don’t bog the reader down with limitations, they say, let the mind's eye supply necessary details. Save in-depth depictions for villains or secondary characters. Do you follow these rules? Or are rules meant to be broken?

And then there’s the setting, or settings. You’ve got the country, the city, the suburbs, uptown, downtown, under the bridge, skyscraper penthouses, tenements, golf course condos, farmhouses. Are we in a foreign country, local, staying put, or on the road? Don’t start off in one locale and then halfway through the book switch gears—that’s a big no, no. If we’re on the move, make that clear from the beginning, or end the book with a change of scene. Don’t confuse the reader. Change of scene must be intricately tied to the story, don’t put your protagonist on the move for no good reason. More rules. More to think about.

Below are some fine examples of description by authors one can only hope to aspire to one day.

John Irving describes Garp's mother in The World According To Garp:

Jenny was twenty-two. She had dropped out of college almost as soon as she'd begun, but she had finished her nursing-school program at the head of her class and she enjoyed being a nurse. She was an athletic-looking young woman who always had high color in her cheeks; she had dark, glossy hair and what her mother called a mannish way of walking (she swung her arms), and her rump and hips were so slender and hard that, from behind, she resembled a young boy. In Jenny's opinion, her breasts were too large; she thought the ostentation of her bust made her look "cheap and easy."

And, can you imagine putting the reader into a mind of a dog while also preparing the reader for the far north setting of the story with any better skill than Jack London displays in The Call of the Wild? I sure can't.

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide- water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.

One of my favorite authors of all time, Anne Tyler, sets the scene in the main character's family home in The Accidental Tourist, with a light touch, yet establishing a strong sense of purpose.

When his brothers came home from work, the house took on a relaxed, relieved atmosphere. Rose drew the living room curtains and lit a few soft lamps. Charles and Porter changed into sweaters. Macon started mixing his special salad dressing. He believed that if you pulverized the spices first with a marble mortar and pestle, it made all the difference. The others agreed that no one else's dressing tasted as good as Macon's. "Since you've been gone," Charles told him, "we've had to buy that bottled stuff from the grocery store." He made it sound as if Macon had been gone a few weeks or so - as if his entire marriage had been just a brief trip elsewhere.

Here's the great Willa Cather's opening for O Pioneers. Places you right smack dab down in Nebraska.

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain "elevator" at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o'clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought their wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars along the street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train in until night.

I'd love to hear what descriptions in fiction you find most memorable or totally blew you away.

All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.


Cloudia said...

Some aspiring writers just bury the narrative thread in so much detail and description that it is a chore to wade through it.
I like spare with deep echoes. My novel "Aloha Where You Like Go" is a mere 140 pages. I'd rather entice and tickle than overhwelm!

Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral


Here goes: Colette's "Cheri"..

He was standing in front of a pier-glass framed in the space between two windows, gazing at the reflection of a very youthful, very good-looking young man, neither too short nor too tall, hair with the blue sheen of a blackbird's plumage. He unbuttoned his pajamas, displaying a hard, darkish chest, curved like a shield; and the whites of his dark eyes, his teeth, and the pearls of the necklace gleamed in the over-all rosy glow of the room.

Later, there is relentless discussions, and rewinds about the description of both lovers, over and over as they each race to age; She had a healthy head start.

I am afraid that I tend not to share enough details, and so the vision I hold in my head may differ greatly from the one I am offering.

staceyjwarner said...

I remember loving the description of Eustacia Vye in RETURN OF THE NATIVE by Thomas Hardy...

I wanted to be her, or maybe I am her...

much love

Mr. Shife said...

I am such the wrong person to ask because I only read magazines like Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly. But when I do break down and read a book the one author I have read repeatedly is Jon Krakauer and I enjoy his books. I have his new book about Pat Tillman and look forward to taking some time to read it. My favorite book of all time is "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas.

Jemi Fraser said...

I don't write with a lot of description myself. I like giving tidbits, but not whole bits :)

One of my favourite descriptions off the top of my head is the 1st paragraph of Farenheit 451. Love the description of the fire, the hose, the burning. Very powerful stuff.

Joanne said...

Here's one of my favorites, of place ...

"Sometimes on a sunny day it began even to be pleasant and genial, and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps."

The gardens at Lowood, from Jane Eyre.

Jan Morrison said...

Oh boy - isn't it all description of some sort! Spare or lush as long as it transports me. I still remember reading a 007 at the age of 12 and rhapsodizing over the description of Bond sucking a sea urchin spine out of a woman's arch. oooooh!
Here's a bit from the first chapter of Barbara Gowdy's Mr. Sandman:
"To be fair, though, there was something unearthly about Joan. She was born with those pale green eyes, and the hair on her head, when it finally grew in, was like milkweed tuft. That fine, that white. And look how tiny she was! Nobody in the family was tiny. Nobody in the family was anything like her, her real parents least of all. Sonja was fat, and had dark brown corkscrew hair and brown eyes. The real father was an orange-haired giant, eyes a flat creamy blue like seat-cover plastic."
I love it!

Fireblossom said...

I'm with Stacey, I loved the description of Eustacia Vye. Oddly, that didn't turn out to be one of my more favorite Hardy novels, but E.V. was so clear and striking.

Given the choice, I want the chiclit descriptions. I need to know what she's wearingggg, tyvm.

Another description I loved was in Vernon Lee's novella "Amour Dure." of the unforgettable Madea da Carpi, seen in a portrait:

"(Her)lips give a strange air of refinement,at the same time, an air of mystery, a somewhat sinister seductiveness; they seem to take, but not to give. The mouth with a kind of childish pout, looks as if it could bite or suck like a leech. The complexion is dazzlingly fair, the perfect transparent roset lily of a red-haired beauty; the head, with hair elaborately curledplaited close to it,adorned with pearls, sits like that of the antique Arethusa on a long, supple swan-like neck."

The story is so ponderously written in the beginning, that I nearly gave up any number of times. But in the end, it ended up being worth the early effort. I think Madea da Carpi is one of the most unforgettable women in all of fiction.

lakeviewer said...

I'm new at writing fiction. When I envision a character I concentrate on his/her needs and passion that will eventually be his downfall too. I'm a minimalist when it comes to description, just the basics.

Tamika: said...

I'm learning to thread description in through my characters actions and emotions, even conversation.

Hard lesson to learn.

Helen Ginger said...

I tend to like concise descriptions. They don't go on and on, but the words used are so visual that you can see the character and even understand their thinking.

Straight From Hel

Alix said...

I love this post because it reminds me of why I could never be an author. I don't have the attention span. Too many decisions. Too many rules. But I have a great respect and love for literature. A great respect and love for you!

Here's an amazing piece of writing... can you guess whose?

"Grandma won't talk to Mam anymore because of what I did with God in her backyard. Mam doesn't talk to her sister, Aunt Aggie, or her brother Uncle Tom. Dad doesn't talk to anyone in Mam's family and they don't talk to him because he's from the North and he has the odd manner. No one talks to Uncle Tom's wife, Jane, because she's from Galway and she has the look of a Spaniard. Everyone talks to Mam's brother Uncle Pat, because he was dropped on his head, he's simple, and he sells newspapers. Everybody calls him The Abbot or Ab Sheehan and no one knows why. Everyone talks to Uncle Pa Keating because he was gassed in the war and married Aunt Aggie and if they didn't talk to him he wouldn't give a fiddler's fart anyway and that's why the men in South's pub call him the gas man."

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
Chapter V, page 132

But my favorite book of all time is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. A children's book, perhaps, but with a gigantic universal message.

Thanks for another fabulous post.

Stacy Post said...

Love the topic, Elizabeth! I tend to lean on the spare side when it comes to physical description. But I'm still learning. :)

I'm going to have to do a little digging to find some great examples to share...the previous comments are fascinating!

Nancy said...

Wow, I loved all of your choices! I really need to read all of those books.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

"His mouth was glued to a half-smoked cigar that seemed to grow out of his mustache. It was hard to tell whether he was asleep or awake, because he breathed like most people snore."--- Shadow of the Wind. :)

Great post, Elizabeth! I'm not good with description, but you're inspiring me.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anne Spollen said...

I love the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." She is so completely real and so completely obnoxious. O'Connor describes the daughter-in-law's face as "simple and innocent as a cabbage."

Such common words, yet so powerful.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

John Steinbeck's description of the turtle crossing the road in The Grapes of Wrath is absolutely brilliant and classic...but of course, it isn't about a protagonist, but holds symbolic significance to the novel as a whole!!! These are inspiring examples of description, Elizabeth!!! Fabulous set of authors which you highlight here!!! I am inspired! You really make me think deep about the writing craft! Love it! ~Janine XO

Marguerite said...

Great post about a great subject. I tend to over-describe, but I suppose that goes along with being a Cajun. One of my favorite descriptive writers is James Lee Burke, who is also from Cajun Country. Coincidence or not, I love his writing!

Jenn said...

This is fantastic Elizabeth! I know it is going to sound kind of strange but now that I am writing so much more fiction I have actually started reading more as well. Surprised I wasn't a reader all along? Well for me reading is very slow and my ADD tends to distract me so much I end up never finishing. Now that we are watching far less tv in this house and got library cards its on. Well, as soon as NaNoWriMo is over (yikes!). I am a chick who likes to live in the fantasy in her own head so I suppose reading that genre will be where I begin :-]