so you want to talk about flesh prisons (aka characters’ physical descriptions)

The other night at dinner, my husband was talking about Ready Player One. He read the book (in English) first shortly after it came out, then saw the movie, and now he’s reading the book in Italian. (Which he’s taught himself, because this is the guy I married.) He commented on how, since he’s seen the movie, he kept picturing the character Art3mis as her on-screen version and not the book version.

Which got me going about describing characters and using the phrase “flesh prisons” (yes, while we were eating) and he asked a) if I’d write it up, and b) if I’d use the phrase “flesh prisons” in my post.

So. Here we are.

I’m even going to throw in the asterisk that I gave him before going on my rant: this doesn’t work for all genres. If you’re writing romance, for example, you’re going to go right ahead and slow down while focusing on the love interest. There are times, be it in genres or just scenes, when more description matters. Just bear in mind that longer descriptions do slow down the action, so they’re more suited to certain places in your book than others.

Okay. Asterisk out of the way. When boiled down, my own personal decision on how much to describe my characters is this:

What do we decide to do with our meat prisons?

Bearing in mind that my characters are contemporary figures who get put into “basically today, usually Michigan” for their thriller settings, they’re humans. And human beings can be interesting, but part of what I’ve come to realize about myself is that physical appearance is most interesting to me when it ties into characterization.

Maybe also that I’m just not good at in-depth character descriptions. Anyway.

Let’s take Jay for a minute. I know, I know, only a handful of people have read Not Your Mary Sue so far since it’s not out until June, but you can meet him in the opening pages here. And most of the description comes when you first meet a character, right? So we can see some elements of Jay’s appearance: reddish hair (currently messy instead of purposefully tousled); blue eyes; tall; has a smile that lights up his entire face. I’ve even dropped in a clue about whether he’s right- or left-handed, but that’s not really a physical descriptor.

The thing is, in the first draft of the novel (from NaNoWriMo 2017) I did something that made me cringe a little when I went back over it: I described him based on which actor would play him in the movie version. It made sense within the book itself – Jay wants his story to be told and become a bestseller, so it’s not a stretch to imagine it then getting turned into a movie, the way both Mark Harmon and Zac Efron have played Ted Bundy – but I ended up cutting it.

Naming a well-known actor basically locks us all in to the same Jay, forever and ever, amen, the way my husband’s been picturing the Art3mis from the movie while reading the book. If I describe someone as “Avengers-era Chris Evans” (not my Jay model, in case you were trying to make it work), then we’re all stuck with Avengers-era Chris Evans in our head. We might not complain, but … we’re still all picturing the exact same thing.

I want to give you some leeway.

Pick whatever kind of nose you want for Jay. Imagine his eyebrows. Fill in the rest of his face.

You’ll learn later about why his smile maybe isn’t such a welcome thing, and Marcy has her own reasons to focus on his physique in the early pages of the book, but there’s enough to play with so that your Jay doesn’t have to be my Jay. And I’ve gone for sort of the low-hanging fruit: hair color, eye color, and height. Basically sketched in a roughly humanoid figure.

The rest of what you learn about Jay has to do with his character: who he is as a person. When Marcy describes his physique, it’s in comparison to what she associates with his favorite hobby. (Spoilers there, so that’s vague. No, it’s not serial killing.) His hair matters because it is messy instead of deliberately tousled, each of which says something different about a person.

What I like to describe about my characters’ physical selves are the things that tell us something about them as people.

It’s usually not something they had no control over – whatever genes blessed or didn’t bless them from birth – but the things they do: hair style. Tattoos or piercings. Hair dye. Clothing. Hobbies and learned skills that show themselves physically, like a guitar player’s calluses. Sometimes things they didn’t necessarily have control over, but tell us about their lives, like scars.

In the Ready Player One example, Art3mis is encountered first – and for the vast majority of the book – as an avatar. Cline spends a lot of time having his main character describe that avatar, in part for those romance novel reasons (Wade knows who Art3mis is before encountering her “in person” so he already knows she’s interesting) but also because the avatar was entirely created. Art3mis chose not only her screenname, but every element of her avatar. Everything about her appearance is therefore a deliberate choice that tells Wade something about her before he ever meets her.

And to be fair, I have wondered if character descriptions are one of my weakest points. (If you’re going to tell me I’m right, please be kind while you do so.) Maybe it’s something to do with being ace and just not looking at people the “usual” way. Or maybe I just think motivations and internal aspects of character are more interesting than flesh prisons.

How do you approach describing characters’ physical appearances? Do you have any favorite authors who seem to be really good at it?

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