Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Describe Description

Today's entry depends heavily on personal preference. As far as I know, there's no right or wrong way to go about describing things. Some writers are very good at it and some very bad. Others don't even try, and others still will only describe things in a simple, off-hand way that gives the imagination just enough to get by.

And then there's the difference between the descriptions of people versus places and things. When it comes to writing people, some people like to go in full-bore and illustrate a person down to the last thread of string dangling from a tweed elbow, while others need only throw the barest of ideas our way to convey what they mean. Strangely, others can get by without even mentioning a person in terms of their physical attributes, relying instead upon personalities and attitudes. This gives us an approximation of a character instead of a solid picture, which has some benefits. In most books, the main characters themselves are left almost completely abstract, letting the reader fill in the blanks. When the writer actually does have to describe something to us, their addition is (usually) seamlessly integrated in with our own ideas of the person. I know I cite this a lot, but in Harry Potter, Harry is loosely described as a “skinny, scrawny boy with floppy hair and a scar on his forehead.” Other than that, Harry looks however we want him to. Interestingly, the description was enough that when I saw Daniel Radcliffe in the movies, I thought, “sure enough, that's what he looks like!”
Some writers have taken such advantage of this that books have been written in which the reader has no idea what gender the character is, or even that the characters were actually a family of birds. At least, not until the last page.

Now it's time for some teaching examples to help ease your mind into mine. What follows are depictions of characters listed in each of the ways I've described, starting from the least detail to the most.

Low detail personality sketch:

Simon always looked over-dressed, but upon seeing the terrified expression on his face, one could imagine that his clothes were the only thing helping him believe he was suited for the job.

Medium detail personality sketch:

One further understood Simon's expression upon meeting his boss, Mr. Maddigan, who only ever just seemed to be keeping his rage under control. Maybe his rage stemmed from being so short, or because of the fact that he had gone bald much earlier than everyone else in his family. In fact, some people believed that Maddigan was compensating for the loss of hair on his head by growing an incredibly thick mustache.

High detail personality sketch, minus physical description:

However, to fully understand Maddigan, one had to meet his wife Patricia. She and him had married quite late in life, and so they were both quite set in their ways. Patricia and her husband lived in a house too large for both of them, but neither were brave enough to say anything. The house mostly belonged to Patricia, anyway. She had taken it over like a virus. She fancied herself to be quite good at embroidery, despite the fact that she wasn't. This was probably because she disliked using patterns. The entire house was filled with things she had embroidered; pillows, blankets, quilts and clothes; her thirst for sewing was insatiable. Patricia constantly lost her needles in the carpet, only to be found later by Mr. Maddigan's squashy feet.

Low detail sketch, with physical:
But the whole reason Patricia had gotten into sewing was because of a woman named Veronica Green.
Veronica had been a supermodel in the 1960s, and still behaved as if she were twenty-one. Quite headstrong, she never dressed in anything except low-cut shirts and short skirts, much to the disgust of everyone around her. Seeing a sixty-five year-old woman dressed in this way is quite distressing, after all, no matter how good she looks for her age. She also happened to be excellent at sewing.

Medium detail, with physical:
Veronica had a sister who was considerably younger than her. A whole ten years, in fact. Her name was Melanie. She had held up much better than Veronica; she practically lived at the gymnasium, and so her skin had stayed tight on her, unlike Veronica. Melanie looked even younger than she was; her predisposition toward not-smiling had kept the crow's feed away from her angular face, and her stress-free life of luxury kept the white hairs at bay. Just to be safe, she never let her hair go more than two weeks without a fresh dye. The argument could be made that she paid more attention to her hair than to her own children, of which she had four.

High detail, with physical:

That day, Melanie's youngest daughter Anna had to visit the grocery store to buy milk, which was where she met Simon.
From Simon's point of view, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen entered his checkout line. Her thick Brown hair fell around her face like a Greek goddess, highlighting her high cheekbones and vivid green eyes. Although she was wearing gray hospital scrubs, Simon still found her incredibly alluring. From Anna's point of view, Simon was quite attractive. Horrified, she realized she hadn't looked in a mirror for the entire day.

I feel like I'm not succeeding with "high detail." Maybe I shouldn't call it that.

My personal preference seems to lean toward describing people in terms of their personality instead of their physical qualities. I've always thought that if I can describe someone and make them seem attractive, I can wriggle away from the commitment of meticulously listing their physical characteristics. Personally I don't enjoy writing about flowing brown hair or high cheekbones, because those traits aren't universally attractive. What if I was raised in the Middle East and found that kind of look to be too American? Or if I was from Jamaica and preferred my women to be browner?

This is to say nothing of describing locations. There's just too much for one blog. Try a few different styles and see what you're good at.

1 comment:

  1. Writing descriptions for me is hard. I can see it in my mind but writing about it I feel like I have 4 thumbs.
    I always feel challenged in the area, thanks for writing about it.