|But... what is she WEARING?|
Using someone's appearance to imply their personality.
Books and Covers
As Savannah Cordova points out in the above article, this is an age-old trick used by men who have trouble writing women; they simply describe the character looking a certain way, and use that description to imply who she is as a person so save time and effort. Whether it's her wild mane of raven hair, or the glint of mischief in her eyes, or the defiant way she folds her arms; all of this is meant to convey who she is in an instant. This trick goes back at least as far as the pulps and short story magazines, where authors didn't have the page space to waste on big exposition or establishing shots, because they had plot to get to.
|A specter in black, with a grim expression and a devil's fire in his eyes.|
But if you stop and think about it, this trick is both really lazy, and sort of creepy. Most of us have literally been taught our entire lives not to judge people based on the way they look, and manipulating your audience to do that can come across as creepy. Especially when they catch you doing it, and get annoyed that your manipulation is so obvious.
Showing Is Facts In Action
A lot of writers who rely on this lazy trick defend it by saying they're showing the audience who someone is instead of telling them... but really, you're not. You're just pointing at an object at rest, and using description to lead the audience to a certain conclusion. That's just telling disguised as showing, and you're not doing yourself any favors. In fact, it's actually a lot easier to just dispense with the complicated subterfuge, and focus on really showing your audience who a character is.
|All right, boys, show 'em we mean business!|
You need your audience to judge your characters by their actions, instead of by their appearance. To that end, if you want to establish a character is a certain way, you need to show them acting that way to confirm that it's actually who they are. That way it's not just hearsay; we have evidence to back up our knowledge.
As an example, don't describe a woman's business attire and end it there; show how she conducts herself. Does she have a firm handshake and eye contact? Does she walk with confidence, overriding objections smoothly during negotiations? Is she aggressive, or stoic? If we see her later does she conduct herself the same way she does when she's at the office, or is the persona we've witnessed part of the face she wears for business? Or is the only thing that changes her choice of more sensible shoes and a leather jacket instead of a blazer?
The same is true for almost any aspect of a character. If you want to establish they're strong, show them lifting something heavy with ease. If you want to let us know they're a capable fighter, show them get into a scrape with someone. If you need the audience to know this character is smart, showing them doing something that requires them using their intelligence (playing chess is a favorite, as is hacking into computers, or talking about quantum physics before realizing no one else in the room can understand them).
What you should not do is just use inflammatory adjectives to get your point across; show your characters doing things, and present them as objectively as you can. A little flavor here and there is good for your prose, but make sure you're not using it in place of presenting your audience with facts to draw their conclusions from.
The Deductive Approach
There is an alternative approach to always showing your characters in action, but it's something that needs to be handled very carefully. Because you can sprinkle hints into a character's description to give your audience clues about who they are, and what they're like, but the key is that these hints need to be facts about the character, and the deductive implications of those facts.
|It's elementary, really...|
If you've ever read a Sherlock Holmes story, then you've seen how Conan Doyle laid this all out for the reader. Holmes takes the facts of a situation, and then deduces meaning from them. You don't have to get as intricate as the great detective, but you do need to follow the same kind of logic.
As an example, say you're meeting a character for the first time. He's dressed in an expensive suit and seems friendly, but what do the details about him in this scene say? Well, the college ring on his hand says West Point, so we can deduce where he went to school. His palm is calloused despite his expensive clothes, the pattern implying that he practices regularly with handguns. A Texan drawl tells us where he grew up, or at least where he's lived long enough to acquire an accent. The scent of cigars tells us he's a smoker, the particular odor saying they're mid-range in price, and the faintness implying it's not a regular indulgence.
Now, we haven't seen this character actually do anything, but each of these little clues has given us a bit of insight about who he might be behind the tie, and it fleshes him out. I talked about this over on my gaming blog in the entry Do Clothes Make The Adventurer, as well, if you're looking for more examples for how to imply a character's history through these little details. Generally speaking, though, you're looking for things like tattoos, cultural markings, voice tics, scars, and even tan lines, and providing context for the reader to help them draw the right conclusions. It takes work, and it's a tough habit to get used to, but it's a great deal less problematic than just using leading descriptions and hoping your audience goes along with the railroading.
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That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!