I’m an editor and an author, so I live on both sides of the desk. (And, on both sides, I’ve grown very familiar with the joy and struggle, the road-blocks and the breakthroughs, that go into telling a story). But most of all, on a fundamental level, I am a reader. Being a reader is what led me to these professions, and it is what sustains me — as a writer, as an editor, and well, as a person.
As a reader, I come to a story craving a sensory experience; I believe most readers do. I want to hear the crunch of leaves, smell the pine, taste the burnt marshmallow, feel the bark of a tree. That is the work of the writer, after all: to build a world up, piece by piece, so that the reader is fully immersed. And, in this world, I especially want to see everything. The surroundings — the campfire, the mountains — but, crucially, the characters.
Who is sitting around this campfire? Just as I need the characters’ voices and actions and desires to come alive for me, I need to have a strong visual sense of the characters, so that they exist vividly in my mind’s eye.
When asking an author of mine for a revision, one of my first requests will often be for a physical description of the protagonist. Ideally, I’d like such a description for every character, but the more minor players can be sketched with a less precise pencil. However, the main character — our inroad into the story, our compass — is most vibrant and fully realized for me if I can picture them clearly, and early on.
Is your protagonist blond? If so, what kind of blond? Pale as milk, or the color of sand? If she’s dark-haired, how might you describe the shade of brown? Is she tall, slim, full-figured? Is her nose snub? Does she wear glasses? What color are her eyes?
Needless to say, there are endless physical descriptors that can go into the introduction of a main character. The key is to not go overboard — you don’t want to lose the reader with a dense paragraph that details everything from the shape of the character’s face to her toe ring. A couple of evocative details go a long way. Also, these descriptions can be broken up and dispersed. An opening paragraph can show us the length of her hair; later in the chapter, we can learn her skin is freckled.
There are a variety of ways to introduce this physical description, rather than a plain “Mary was willowy and dark-skinned” or “I have curly red hair.” (though these work fine as well!). There is the comparison technique: showing one character in contrast to another. “Unlike her best friend, Jane, who was pale and petite, Mary was willowy and dark-skinned.” Right away, we have a visual: not just of Mary, but of Jane. The world is that much closer to being fully built. One can also drop a physical description in casually, almost sneakily. “The boys all called me ‘Carrots,’ so I came to hate my curly red hair.”
A writing teacher once advised me to never show a character looking in a mirror as a pathway to describing him or her. “Sue went into the bathroom and gazed at her hazel eyes.” But I think there are worse narrative sins — I think leaving out a visual of your character entirely leeches more life from a story than using this mirror technique.
Of course, there are arguments to be made against giving physical descriptions. We are taught, after all, that looks don’t matter: it’s what’s inside that counts. But the best physical descriptions illuminate something deeper about the character. For instance, perhaps a pudgy-cheeked character is resentful because he doesn’t bear any resemblance to his tall, chiseled other brother. Does your character wear contact lenses because she felt self-conscious about the glasses, and wanted to be perceived in a different way?
There is also the compelling argument that giving a visual description of a character can have a distancing effect on the reader — that he or she won’t be able to see themselves as easily in the story. That their imaginations can’t roam as
freely. But let’s give readers more credit than that: their minds will always work to fill in the blanks, even if there is a physical description on the page. Before the movies came out and Daniel Radcliffe took up residence in our heads, I’m positive that my visual of Harry Potter was very different from that of my friend’s visual, even though we both knew he had black hair, round glasses, and a scar on his forehead. That’s the magic of reading. We enter the world conjured by the author, but no two people will picture it quite the same.
Can a story be enjoyed and reread and cherished if there aren’t physical descriptions of the characters? Certainly. In The Great Gatsby, we’re never really told what Daisy looks like — we only know she is beautiful and wealthy, and that is somehow enough. Like all “rules” about writing, this one isn’t hard-and-fast (I like to ignore my writing teacher’s advice about mirrors, after all). It’s ultimately about what works best for your specific story, for your process, for your characters. Sometimes the power lies in not knowing precisely how a character looks (take the wonderful Wonder, for instance, which is all about the character’s appearance, and yet not at all). Other times, you’ll want to spell it all out (take the enticing first paragraph of Gone with the Wind). Each writing experience will be different — as different and quirky and unique as the characters that populate your stories. And I look forward to reading about them.
Aimee Friedman is an executive editor at Scholastic, where she is fortunate enough to edit such titles as the New York Times bestselling series Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski, and, of course, the acclaimed The Boy Project and The Boy Problem by Kami Kinard. Aimee is also a New York Times bestselling author of YA novels, including Sea Change. She writes for middle-grade readers under the pen name Ruth Ames. Aimee lives, writes, works, and searches for the perfect iced latte in New York City. Check out her website HERE and you can follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/aimeefriedman.
GIVEAWAY: Aimee is giving away a signed copy of her book Sea Change! At the end of #KidlitSummerSchool one name will be drawn from all who comment on this post.
And don’t forget the Webinar tomorrow night at 9:00 pm EST. You can find details HERE.