How many books have you read where the first glimpse of a character you get is when they look in a mirror and describe themselves? Or books that give descriptions like ‘she was average height with an athletic build, long flowing blonde hair and big blue eyes’? You might say there’s nothing wrong with these. They tell us the basics of what a character looks like, after all.
But they don’t tell us anything about the character other than the very scant physical description we walk away with. They don’t show us mannerisms, they don’t give us any clue as to the character’s behaviour, background or motive.
This description of Tess from Tess of the D’Urbervilles gave me the idea for this blog post:
“Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.”
It tells us little about what Tess looks like, yet goes far further in describing her than ‘black hair, pale skin’ ever could. It gives us a sense of her age and situation in life. It tells us she grew up faster than she should have, that for all that she is a woman she is naïve, childlike, missing something that other women of her age have, perhaps in experience or wisdom. It tells us that her childhood was a time she longs to revisit. It tells us that something happened to change the girl Tess into the woman we now see.
Of course any exercise like this is open to interpretation. You may read more or less into the passage about Tess than me, or you may see different things. The point is, we see something. This clever usage of description by Thomas Hardy reveals aspects of Tess’s character that a standard physical description never could. It reveals the person behind the character.
Reading that passage made me think about character descriptions and how there is far more to a character, and to a person, than just how they look. There is how they move and walk, how they dress, what they sound like and how they speak, what they like to do, where they want to go, the angle they tilt their head at when they think, the way their mouth drifts open when they concentrate, the way their eyes sparkle when they remember a happy moment.
The point I am making is that characters are people, and to writers they should feel as real as the people we encounter in life. Try describing your best friend, sister, postman. Better yet try describing someone from your past – your maths teacher, the first girl you kissed, the first boy you held hands with, the woman who stood at the bus stop outside your house every morning.
I guarantee it won’t so much be the physical traits you remember as the way the maths teacher tapped the chalk on the blackboard when she was frustrated and leaned the other hand on her hip, the way the girl’s hair smelled as you leaned in to kiss her, the way the boy’s forehead crinkled when his friends teased him for liking a girl, the way her lipstick always stained her front teeth orange and you never told her even though she smiled at you every morning.
It is a lesson I am going to try and remember each time I create a new character. It is the little details, the personal quirks and traits that make a person, not the colour of their eyes or the length of their hair.