Describing Characters

Monday, February 20, 2017

As a mature reader, I want a minimum of description so that I can imagine the characters and settings for myself. But when I was younger, I enjoyed the extensive descriptions in classic literature, and my middle grade beta readers have told me that they want something in between.

Finding the right balance can be hard, especially since it must be the point-of-view character’s natural thoughts. Unless we are vain or dressing for a special event, most of us don’t think about how we look. Yes, we check to make sure our hair is brushed and our makeup is on correctly, but we don’t specifically think about our brown hair and green eyes and nondescript face. So when describing the two protagonists from my current work in progress, I struggled to make the description natural. This means that, first, I had to give my POV character a plausible reason to think about it, and, second, I had to put the description in her own words.

My two protagonists are twelve-year-old cousins who alternate point-of-view chapters. Julia has a rich imagination, and Fannie has none. I want to describe them in enough detail to make my readers happy, but the only feature truly important to the story is that Julia is slightly overweight and Fannie is not.

The physical description of the two characters seems to fit most easily in the second Julia chapter, where I can use the fathers’ similarity as a lead-in. However, Julia wouldn’t necessarily think of herself as overweight, so how do I get that across? Julia would probably make the comparison using metaphors or similes, but she is unlikely to think of her body shape in a negative way. To complicate matters further, the comparison I use must be to objects that were present in 1872 but can also be understood by today’s preteens.

Here are some of the comparisons I considered:

Fannie                        Julia

lamp post                    pillow (soft and comfortable)

clarinet                        violin

cattail (or lily)             lilac bush

green bean                  cucumber

For the moment, this is what I ended up with:

Gripping her hatbox, Julia followed her father and stepmother off the train. Then she spotted her Uncle Albert in the crowd. He was younger than her father, but anyone who looked at them could tell they were brothers.

Maybe that was why strangers who saw Julia and Fannie together thought they were sisters, although Julia couldn’t see the resemblance. Both had green eyes and chestnut brown hair, but Julia’s hair was straight while Fannie’s curled naturally, making it appear thicker and puffier. And they were both average height, but Fannie was as lean as a lamp post while Julia was shaped more like a Chinese vase.  

I’m still not happy with it, so if you have any better ideas, I’d love to hear them.

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