Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

I’m afraid I might be a lazy writer when it comes to character descriptions. In my own fiction, I usually do the large brushstrokes only: dark hair, dark eyes, the hands in a gesture, the mouth if it matters, just a few telling details are all I need—so I convince myself. Maybe I just don’t know how to poetically describe a person beyond a list of specifics: green hair, blue eyes, seven freckles, pointy nose, tiny mouth, yellow teeth, bat ears, I don’t know, should I go on?

I’m the kind of reader who doesn’t like photos of the supposed characters on book covers. I also don’t like for a writer to tell me so much about what a character looks like, I especially don’t like comparisons to celebrities—I like to form the picture myself. And, of course, I have that pet peeve about characters looking in the mirror in the first chapter so they can then have a long paragraph telling us what they look like (spare me). I also don’t like when scenes in movies end on closing doors, but it can work, so I shouldn’t outright cut out all mirrors and closed doors from stories, I guess.

But as I write this, the last of my freelance assignments (the last, I tell myself, and until the day I’m able to write full-time I should really listen!) I am having trouble with the simplest parts. I have to tell the reader what these people look like. And there are many characters to describe. And my paragraphs flounder there, gasping for adjectives.

So writers, how do you describe your characters? How much, how little, how organic, how specific? Do you just go for dark hair, dark eyes or move beyond that? Do you do the mirror?

And readers, what details do you need when reading a story? Do you like to create a picture for yourself or have it drawn out for you, at least sketched?

Personally I’d like to get away with not describing anybody so I can finish this sooner, have it out of my hands, get paid, and most importantly have the time again to work on my own novel, in which, I now realize, the narrator describes absolutely everyone around her but herself, a problem I suppose I should deal with at some point, huh?

Confessions of an Eavesdropper

I am the person sitting at the table beside you, listening to you talk. I might be gazing down at my plate or into my steaming cup of mint tea, but really I’m committing your words to memory. In a few moments I’ll find an excuse to look up around the room. My gaze will fall on you, linger until you look up and see me looking, then I’ll glance away at some new random thing as if I’m lost in thought—but of course it’s no accident. I’m just putting your words to a picture so I know how to describe you later.

As I confessed in this post, it’s a great way to collect characters, or details to color other more fictional characters later on.

I confess to having “borrowed” from friends, acquaintances, coworkers their:

• Mothers
• Patients
• Dentists
• Baby-sitters
• Ex-boyfriends
• Imaginary friends

…to name a few.

And I’ve borrowed overheard conversations—who doesn’t? Makes you careful what you talk about in public, that’s for sure.

Sometimes I wonder if my imagination is too confined to the tangible. Like I have to see something grounded in real life before I can expand on it in fiction. It really limits what I write about. Maybe this is why I don’t write fantasy (or read it). I should close my eyes sometime and invent.

I guess that’s why the current project I’m working on is giving me trouble. I don’t know these people. I close my eyes… see nothing. Listen… can’t hear them talk. This makes me worry about the outcome, a lot.

The best thing I’ve ever stolen from life were these crushed and crumpled letters I found early one morning scattered near a trash can in a desolate park in an East Coast city that’s not the one where I now live. These letters were from someone in prison to someone on the outside. They were pretty shocking. I can’t recount them here or else you might be inclined to steal from them, too. I have a story I’ve only started that features these letters—someday I’ll write it.

I’m not the only writer who does this. We all do, don’t we?

When I was at a writers colony I confided in another writer how freaked out I was by the total darkness that descended on the property at night—no lights anywhere, how walking back alone to my studio at night scared me, a grown woman, like I was still five. We were just talking, I thought. But a week or so later when he had his presentation I came up. Apparently, my fear of the dark, and other quirks of my personality, had inspired a character for his current play. What do you do in that situation, ask to take it back?

I guess we all write about each other, you about me, me about him, us about them, them about us. We can’t help it. Or I can’t help it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop.