The mark of a truly talented crafts-person when it comes to writing is how the author integrates the physical characteristics of his entourage within the folds of the story.
I have read many a book where an author has written something like:
“He was 6 feet tall and with a thick matting of white-blonde hair stood out like a sore thumb. His grey eyes held a touch of mystery while his quarterback-build belied his truly docile nature. His wore a light blue jean shirt and dark blue jeans.”
As an author learning the craft, you may not realize it but this is a classic case of INFO DUMPING.
Okay, okay, (holding my hands up in the air) I know you need to let your reader know what your characters looks like – but not like this.
In little bits…
… when it makes sense to mention those attributes.
Your goal is to reveal what your characters look like when the scene allows for it. This is the time for being devious and cunning in how you relate key bits of information. You can use direct/primary references (similar to above) or indirect/secondary references to imply aspects of personality and appearance.
Instead of saying, “He was 6 feet tall with a thick matting of white-blonde hair…” Consider something like:
He didn’t have to duck to pass through the door, but these older homes weren’t made for the modern guy. The near-scalping of the upper frame pushed his white-blonde hair up. Flattening it back into place, he bumped his elbow against the wall and held in a curse as the boney protuberance nearly came through his thinning jean shirt. Today was not the day it went from shirt to rag; in five years he’d never found a similar shade of blue, but then the sun in the Sudan tends to bleach fabric differently than the sun in America.
In the passage above, we learn some of the same information as the initial passage but we also learn some new things that add to this guy’s overall character:
1) He’s tall (nearly hit his head on a door frame)
2) He’s got thick white-blonde hair (if it gets pushed up after brushing against the upper frame of the door and requires him to flatten it down again that even tells us he’s a bit self-conscious about his appearance)
3) He might be thin (the boney protuberance of his elbow suggests there’s not much meat on his bones and when paired with the ‘thinning’ shirt readers will often associate the two ideas since they’re located in the same sentence)
4) He’s wearing a light blue, worn jean shirt (we’ve got him nearly popping his elbow through the thinning fabric and mention of the pale shade with regards to the ‘bleaching’ sun of the Sudan)
5) He’s polite (holds in a curse) but not a saint (he did curse after all) and this leads into his “docile nature” from the first example.
6) We get a hint of a man who might have been in the military on assignment in the Sudan and that the shirt in question is some kind of link or grounding device either to something that happened while he was over there or the need to hold on to something from ‘home’ – which in turns tells us there’s some kind of emotional scarring or damage we will yet learn about, making readers want to turn the page 😉
The information about his blue jeans may or may not be useful. Likely we’d imagine he wore a pair anyway without having to be told (based on the comments about his shirt). We could easily get into the description of his eyes in relation to that worn blue shirt: bringing out the hint of blue in his eyes and then focus on how both the shirt and his eyes looked faded and nearly silver-grey in the half-light of that poorly lit old house. Then we could focus a bit more on his overall stature to affirm his thin but sturdy appearance and the effects his time in the Sudan had on him.
Using your character’s appearance as a tool for showing the reader more about this person is far more interesting than running through their basic stats.
On the flip side, don’t forget to describe your main characters in enough detail within the first chapter or two.
I’ve also read several manuscripts where I’ve developed my own image of the main character based on secondary information (an ‘all American’ boy, short stint in the military, etc.) only to be told in chapter 12 that he has black hair (not blonde) and is a bean-pole (not broad and thick) – this is a clear indication of not enough info being present in the critical first chapter(s) to help paint the picture.
So grab that pain brush and see how many layers you can add to the physical description of your characters… and don’t be afraid get a little devious 😉
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