Friday, January 6, 2017

Unca Mike's Masterclass: Describing Faces

One of the things new writers are most avid to learn is how to describe their characters' faces. Unfortunately, the one thing they least want to hear in reply is the simple truth: That it's best not to bother. Three quick details will do: blonde, zaftig, beauty mark near the lips -- Marilyn Monroe. You describe your characters best by describing their actions. The reader will provide the mental image for you.

As an example of the kind of things new writers want to learn how to write, here's a woman's face described by Anita Brookner in Hotel du Lac:

Her large spare face, perhaps a little too sparsely populated by a cluster of rather small features, shone with the ruddy health of an unsuspecting child. Everything about her gleamed. Her light blue eyes, her regular, slightly incurving teeth, her faultless skin, all gave off various kinds of sheen; her blonde hair looked almost dusty in comparison.

This is, you will note, not so much a physical description as a moral judgment. Jennifer, for such is her name, is a vacuous creature, selfish in her appetites (those incurving teeth!), lacking in both maturity and intellect, and attractive only to those who are not paying attention to anything but the surface.

This sort of description, already outdated when the above passage was written, descends from Victorian theories of physiognomy which were disproved long ago. It was retained as a convenient way the author could write about the character's personality indirectly. But it's not true -- we can't read a person's character from their face. How much easier life would be if we could!

It is marginally better to describe a character this way than by straight exposition: "Jennifer was the sort of vacuous woman who..."

But it is best to describe a character in fiction same way we learn it in life -- from their actions.

And on Monday...

The Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family has met in solemn conclave and decided the winner of this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card Competition! Tune in Monday for not only the winner but the five runners-up (it was one helluva year) as well.



David Stone said...

Face descriptions as racialist shorthand is something that I bothers me a lot in Robert E Howard's Conan stories. He is soooo detailed about faces, builds, complexions, etc. and I'm sure that it's because the stories themselves are often preoccupied about questions of race, history etc. and flavored with a lot of 19th-century and early 20th century racialist and colonialist ideas that now in hindsight make most reasonable people feel ill-at-ease (at best).

It's funny, but I often feel the character Conan was less prone to racial bias than the narrator of his stories (and I assume his author, although I don't know enough about the man). He seems like someone who would judge people on their competence and physical prowess above anything else. Too bad the author decided to make all POC and Semitic analogs in that universe are inferior to Conan.

dolphintornsea said...

I'll never forget how P. J. O'Rourke described someone with a face you could only have "after a lifetime of bad character".

Kevin Cheek said...

The best description of a beautiful woman I've ever read in Science Fiction is from Lafferty's "Parthen:"

“Let us make you understand just how pretty Eva was! She was a golden girl with hair like honey. Her eyes were blue—or they were green—or they were violet or gold and they held a twinkle that melted a man. The legs of the creature were like Greek poetry and the motion of her hips was something that went out of the world with the old sail ships. Her breastwork had a Gothic upsweep—her neck was passion incarnate and her shoulders were of a glory past describing. In her whole person she was a study of celestial curvatures.

Should you never have heard her voice, the meaning of music has been denied you. Have you not enjoyed her laughter? Then your life remains unrealized."

Imagine the beauty he is describing--an image springs to mind quite easily, but he actually gave us very little actual physical description. To describe her legs as Greek poetry and the motion of her hips as reminiscent of the old sail ships doesn’t tell us exactly what they look like but what our reaction to seeing them would be like.

Far from being wasted description, this description and the description of the other women as being at least as beautiful is pivotal to the plot. But perhaps this reinforces your point, Unca Mike. The beautiful women are not characters in the story but an implacable force taking over the earth. They are only ever glimpsed at a distance and talked about, not developed as characters. The beauty they put on (perhaps as an illusion, perhaps as a disguise, perhaps real--never explained) is merely the tool they use to obsolete one half the Earth's population while enslaving the other half.

But you've got to admit, it's a glorious description!

Michael Swanwick said...

You're right. This isn't about the women themselves, whom we never really see, but about men's reactions to them. It tells us a lot about the men but not a bit about the "women" themselves.

More on this very soon.