It’s starting to bother me a little that I don’t really know what my characters look like beyond the bare necessities of description: eye color, hair color, and approximate height and weight. I’ve given a couple of people scars and tics, but that’s not much to go on. The thing is, even if I don’t describe these things in full for the reader, I need to keep these people straight in my head if I’m not going to mix them up. I’ve just found one place in the first draft where I switched two people’s names within three paragraphs of text. I suppose that’s what makes a first draft so … well … raw.
Anyway, I was surfing the web and was looking at some photographs of people. Not any particular person, but I was looking at the way the photographer had positioned the subject and how the light played across the person’s features. In a couple of weeks I’m going to be taking some photographs of members of a Steampunk group, so I was looking for some inspiration on that front. The last group portraits I took were about 15 years ago on the top of a mountain at a ski resort, trying not to let my subjects slide away from me.
Between last week’s prompt about the story box and looking at portraits, it occurred to me that photographs are really useful tools to help describe characters. So, find a picture of someone that’s well composed. It doesn’t have to be family or anyone you know. In fact, look at some professional shots of actors or other famous people, or look up prominent photographers and take a look at some of their work. Select an image that resonates with you, for whatever reason. History books are another good source for photos.
Now, write a couple of paragraphs of description about this person. Yes, the usual topics of eye color and hair color are fine, but go beyond that. In fact, if you can find a black-and-white photograph it will make you look even harder at the subject and not rely on easy descriptions. What is the shape of the face? Do the lips curve up or down? Are they full or narrow? What about the eyebrows? How does the person wear his or her hair? If you find a full-body shot, you can go farther and describe how the person carries himself.
What is the point of this? To go beyond the obvious. Easy descriptions become boring, and often serve little in the way of the larger story. But the detail about how someone looks — and by this, I mean expression — add far more to the narrative than “blue eyes, blonde hair.”