One of my Writing with Flannery O’Connor students once asked,
Do you have any tips for describing people’s physical appearances and expressions? I’ve been trying show, not tell, their personalities and emotions, but I’d like to avoid cliches such as ‘she had a heart-shaped face’ or ‘his eyes shone.’
That’s an excellent question; it can be very hard to convey a character’s physical appearance. So I thought I’d share my answer with the rest of you.
When you are describing anything in writing–a person’s face, a room, a landscape, anything, really–it is important to ask yourself how much description you need. Your goal is to give your reader just enough to look at so that he feels that he can envision the scene. But it’s a bit of a magic trick, and a bit of a balancing act, because you are actually just giving the reader the impression that he can envision the scene. If you provide too much detail, you actually pull the reader out of the scene.
When it comes to describing a person’s physical features, one or two interesting or unusual features are worth a whole lot more than five or six forgettable physical features.
One important tip I can give is not to settle for the first description that comes to mind. “She had a heart-shaped face” and “His eyes shone” are both a little lazy. The first thing to come to mind is often (though not always) a cliche. And a cliche is something that your reader could have gotten for himself. Remember, your goal is to give your readers something they couldn’t have gotten on their own.
Flannery O’Connor often comes up with surprising similes to describe her characters. In “The Displaced Person” she describes a woman as being “shaped like a peanut.” In “Greenleaf,” instead of saying a man had drawn cheeks and protruding cheekbones, she said his face is “shaped like a rough chalice.” In Wise Blood, a character said of a woman who used to take care of him, “Her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling down her skull.”
One of my favorite physical descriptions of all time comes from the opening paragraph of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces:
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.
I mentioned above that one or two interesting details are worth more than five or six uninteresting details. But if you’re coming up with fresh, surprising details like the ones in the passage above, feel free to keep them coming.
It takes practice and unique vision to come up with images like these from O’Connor and Toole; you’ll never get there if you settle for the first descriptions that comes to mind.
It is important to remember that a character’s “physical appearance” includes a lot more than facial features. Posture, gesture, and clothing carry a lot of weight in the way we interpret a person standing in front of us. And (good news!) it’s easier to write about posture, gesture, and clothing in ways that make them distinctive than to write about facial features.
I often talk about the importance of presenting information to your reader in the way it would come in real life. But depicting people is one area of writing in which we have to make an exception to that rule. In real life, we are incredibly tuned in to people’s facial features. Think about what tiny differences in a person’s appearance you can detect in real life. If you are friends with a set of identical twins, you can probably tell them apart. But how would you describe the difference in words (without exaggerating the difference)? That would be hard. We literally don’t have the words to express the minute facial differences that our eyes can detect. So in writing, we have to rely a little more heavily on macro-features like gesture, posture, and clothing than we might in real life.
Thinking through this question has led to other interesting questions for me. I’ve been trying to think through the relative importance of facial features on the one hand, and posture/gesture/clothing on the other, when it comes to our ability to recognize other people. And I realize that it depends on how well we know the other person. Consider these two scenarios.
Scenario A: A friend puts on a costume, starts limping, and performs some uncharacteristic gesture. Do you still recognize your friend? Probably so. We are so clued into the facial features of the people we know that, while we readily notice changes in posture, gesture, and clothing, they don’t keep us from recognizing a friend or loved one. I know my wife’s face and form and movements so well that I can hardly imagine a disguise that would keep me from recognizing her.
Scenario B: You are walking laps in the park, and you pass a stranger slumped on a bench in a yellow rain slicker. On your second lap, a different person wearing a yellow rain slicker is slumped on the same bench. Do you realize it’s a different person? There’s a good chance you would not. When it comes to people we know less well, we rely more on gesture, posture, and clothing than on facial features (unless, of course, there is something unusual about their facial features).
In reading and writing, you find yourself in a situation that is closer to Scenario B. You don’t have the benefit of the eye’s keen facial-recognition powers, so gesture, posture, and clothing take on more importance.
Maybe something like Saturday Night Live is a helpful comparison: when actors in an SNL skit portray familiar celebrities, it doesn’t matter that their facial features don’t actually match up with the celebrities they portray. Gesture, posture, and clothing carry the freight.
As I have suggested already, if a person has distinctive facial or bodily features, by all means give attention to those features. But describing a person’s heart-shaped face or shining eyes probably isn’t really where the action is.