Bringing a new character into a story needs to be a natural addition, rather than a sudden appearance – or does it? Sometimes popping up out of nowhere can suit the character you are writing. But what I want to look at today is rather the language used around these introductions, to get us away from descriptions of hair/eye/skin colour into more interesting pieces of description.
That is not to say that a character’s physical appearance shouldn’t be mentioned. Of course it can be. It is up to you how defined or ambiguous you want them to be, and how much creative control the reader has in their mind to cast them how they wish. But it may be more interesting to intersperse these descriptors throughout a passage, rather than stating them upfront, which may seem like blunt and inexperienced writing.
I’m going to use some examples to illustrate this. At the outset of Emma by Jane Austen, we are introduced to the titular heroine. The first few lines read thusly:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
You’ll see that nowhere here, nor in the paragraphs following, is Emma given distinct physical descriptors – no blue-eyed, green-eyed, brown-haired, blonde, etc. We are told she is handsome: this word conjures up a more respectable attractiveness than simply ‘pretty’. In understanding the time period of this novel, we can then somewhat place the standards of beauty in our mind. This may be somewhat limited by our own knowledge, sure, but who was Jane Austen writing for? Other English women, most likely, who were living contemporary lives and would have a clear picture in their minds about what a rich and attractive twenty-year-old woman would look like.
Beyond appearances, we are given some personality details, as well. Emma unites the best blessings in existence, and has had little to distress or vex her. Rather idyllic, no? Is she really perfect in all regards, and has had no problems in life? If that’s true, surely she is about to have some. There would be no story about her otherwise. We are set up with expectations that somehow, her good qualities and/or her peaceful life are going to lead to trouble. A couple paragraphs down we find this is quite true:
The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.
The heroine is not so flawless, then. Of course it does not suit most novels to spend the first few pages giving a lengthy description of the life and times of the main character, before setting the scene. And indeed it may be better for whatever you’re writing to have these facts come out gradually – along the lines of ‘show, don’t tell’ writing. I think there’s certainly a time for both, and Emma starts off ‘telling’ you information to start the story.
The second book I want to look at is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Ishmael is an interesting character but I want to explore the way that Captain Ahab is introduced. It’s not until Chapter 28 that he actually shows up, but he is talked about so many times before. Ishmael is told all about him, and thus so is the reader. We are given almost a mythology about the man before he actually appears. By the time he shows up, we hardly need a description of him. But we get one anyway.
Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck. There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire had overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threating its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mar, lividly whitish.
I’m not suggesting that this sort of introduction is appropriate for most characters. We have to consider the context in which he is introduced, and the perspective of the narrator. This man has been hyped up to Ishmael for over a hundred pages. He’s been a mysterious and unseen figure on their ship, which is strange as it isn’t the biggest place in the world to hide. Suddenly, he comes outside and the mystery man is standing there. He is likely to stare, and it is from this staring that we are able to observe him in such detail, too.
Therefore the physical descriptors can be more overt than in a different situation. His sturdy body, grey hair, tawny face and long scar are all described to us here, and in the long passage that follows. It is appropriate to give these descriptors here.
Finally, we’ll look at Daisy in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Daisy is an iconic character and symbolic of the American Dream, apparently. Do we see this from her first appearance to her cousin, the narrator?
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. […] The other girl, Daisy, made an attempt to rise – she leaned slightly forward with a conscientious expression – then she laughed, an absurd, charming little laugh, and I laughed too and came forward into the room.
‘I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.’
She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)
The only description of appearance we receive here (and in the description of the room before this) is of a lot of billowing white fabric. It certainly paints an image. Much like what we saw above with Jane Austen’s writing, this novel is so situated in time and place (1920s New York) that we don’t necessarily need a detailed description to conjure up an image in our heads of a wealthy young woman from this time. We can see Daisy clearly. This passage informs us of things about her that we might not necessarily see.
The two words that I would apply to her description are enticing, and deceptive. From her infectious pointless laughing to her half-gestures and murmurs, she catches other people up in her orbit and make them want to respond positively to her. But her mannerisms are all deliberate. She wants us to see her this way. Fitzgerald reveals this to us here so we know that Daisy is not a straightforward person. If she is indeed symbolic of the American Dream, then here we are being warned that it is all an act. The truth may not be what we expect it to be.
This scene in particular is complex and conveys a lot of things in a short time. Consider what it is you want the reader to know about the character at this point in time. Is a physical description necessary? Is a description of their clothes necessary? The answer might be yes, but think about why. Does it help to reveal something about the character that will be useful to know later? Daisy’s simpering performance here makes her character consistent with other scenes, particularly her great indecision and her running away with her husband without informing Gatsby. She isn’t necessarily admirable, but after all, we aren’t set up to think that she is. We are warned from her first appearance.
Of course, these are all rather strong characters that I have profiled here. How do you think these observations work in terms of quieter, meeker figures? Are there different ways to approach introducing such characters? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.