Writing Adolescent Fiction/Describing physical characteristics

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If you have read classics or other older stories aimed at an adult audience, you have probably seen physical descriptions like this:

Jack was a lanky, spindly old fellow, with arms like twigs. His feet resembled shovels. He had buck teeth that stuck out and smiled contently at you like a grinning bunny, and a tongue like a Popsicle stick. Jack had crows'-feet above his cabbage green currant-like eyes that peered out at you from above his pipe. His snipe nose seemed to sneer at you. There was a rick in Jack's spine as he walked. A white beard of fog billowed around his mouth, right below his double chin.

There is something Dickensian about this kind of description. The writer has almost succeeded at making Jack look like a cartoon character. This style of writing gives the entire story, in fact, a timelessly rustic feel. It does not go well with the contemporary, cosmopolitan, unexaggerated feel of the world of adolescent fiction. Not every character will be beautiful of course, but to fit the timbre of the genre the characters should have about the same number of quirks as ordinary real people have.

When you are writing your stories, you will come to develop your own style, whether your descriptions read something like this:

Stacy's tresses of silky blonde hair were fit neatly into a stunning chignon. Her deep-set chocolate brown eyes looked at you like a puppy dog. The girl had a pixie-like nose that dropped daintily down from its peak. Her Cupid's-bow red lips surrounded her small mouth with perfect alabaster teeth. Dimples were pressed under Stacy's high cheekbones. Her soft hands with long fingers terminated in painted, polished mauve nails. She stood at 5'5" and had a voluptuous figure that poured into a nice hourglass.

or like this:

Jim had messy brown hair, blue eyes, freckles and braces. He was 5'8" tall and weighed 160 pounds.

The two styles have different flavors to them. The first description has a more soap-opera-y feel and sounds written by a feminine writer. The second description gives the picture of a more masculine writer.

Putting physical traits into action[edit]

If you first meet a character in Chapter 3, describing her physical traits presents no problem, as you can just tell the reader as soon as she appears that she has curly black hair, brown eyes, a big nose, braces, a triangular chin and a stocky figure.

But what about the central character or a second character who is introduced right at the beginning of the story? If you began your story with the paragraph "Janet Myers had red hair in a ponytail and hazel eyes . . .", you would sort of be giving the impression that this was the most important thing about the character or a central theme in the story. And it would sound odd if five chapters into your story, you suddenly started going into a complete lowdown on the central character's facial features, coloring, height and weight.

You can still find a way to get the physical traits of a person covered one at a time. Just describe the person's body parts when a mention of the body part comes up. If your character has to rub dirt off her nose, you could write:

Rashida vigorously rubbed all the dirt off of her broken nose.

If your character is freeing his leg that got jambed in a closed door, you could write:

Mike pulled his big hands out of his sleeves to free his stocky leg from the door.

Some writers do find a time and place to describe their character in the middle of their short story, novella or novel, however. In The Escape by Logan Feys, for instance, Feys writes, 1,000 words into the story:

At first glance, Mitch would seem to the casual observer to be a rather normal fifteen-year-old. Nothing in particular about his physical appearance was striking. His facial features were smooth, rounded, and unassuming. In subtle ways, however, he looked a bit unusual. He was a little shorter than average. His hair was dark and soft. He didn't cut it as short as most boys did. Instead, he allowed it to grow thick enough to develop natural waves and curls. He wore plain, solid-colored shirts and pants — nothing “loud,” nothing “hip,” nothing bearing popular sports team logos or name-brand insignias.

Avoiding the easel gesture[edit]

The easel gesture is a gesture or tic that the character does to give the writer a convenient excuse to add some physical description. Suppose you began a novel and it started out with this sentence:

Beth looked again into the mirror, scrunched up her bob nose, and walked away towards the shower.

Why did the writer have Beth scrunch up her nose? Is it to tell the reader that she has a bob nose? Eager writers often fall into this trap, eager young writers among them. One particular easel gesture that is common in teen-written fiction is having a character run her fingers through her hair just so you can tell the reader what color her hair is.

There are ways you can write a character's gestures and make sure that his gestures are genuine. Facial expressions are with us every moment of our lives. Even when we feel no emotion at all or are sleeping, we wear the neutral expression on our faces. When your character makes a facial expression that represents the appropriate emotion, you may describe the parts of the face that are moving. If your character has bushy eyebrows, you could write:

Brian listened to Whitney repeat what she had said, and his face looked truly puzzled. His bushy eyebrows arched high up above his eyes. Could she have possibly meant what he heard her say?

Many gestures are used to communicate, in place of words. We nod our heads when we want to answer a question yes. When we circle our hands around one side of our heads, we are saying someone is crazy. We put our faces in our hands when we feel like breaking down. If you have a character use body language in a natural way, you get an opportunity for physical description:

Laura Ann pointed with the stubby index finger of her right hand to the sushi bar. The stranger thanked her for giving him directions.

Everyone has bad habits of some sort, be it pulling at hangnails, interrupting people or reading in the bathroom for hours on end. If you give your character a bad habit that involves some part of his body, you can describe the body part when you have your character do it:

Obviously nervous, Greg began twirling his shoulder-length brown hair around again.

Describing by associations[edit]

Physical traits can also be mentioned when a character (either the character whose physical traits are being described or another character) reflects on the traits and their aesthetic and social significance. Consider the following paragraph:

Mercedes shook her head as Aleeciah and Ashley walked off with their faux leopard purses. While they were tall at 5'6" and 5'8" respectively, she stood at only 5'1". While they had bouncy, blonde hair and blue eyes, her hair was greasy and dark brown and her eyes hazel. Those two girls wore ribbed baby tees in pink and white, while Mercedes was decked out in a choker necklace, black leggings and a black peasant dress that left everything to the imagination. She thought about the way they could find an endless well of idle chat for any situation, while she always felt as if the cat had her tongue when she needed something to talk about. They drove a Jeep Wrangler and a Jeep Cherokee, while her parents never even bought her her own car on her sixteenth birthday.

You've managed to work in Mercedes' height, her eye color and a description of her hair, all in one paragraph in the middle of the story. Pretty good!

Similar is when you reflect on the ramifications of a character's height and/or weight:

Miranda stood with her mouth wide open and her face frozen as she watched Jeff do his phys ed assignment. She didn't understand how a boy who weighed 95 pounds could be lifting the 30-pound weights.

Having another character describe[edit]

In real life, we sometimes tell another person what someone looks like. If your character goes missing and someone files a missing person report, or if one of his friends needs to point him out to one of her friends in a crowd, or if a girl is describing that hot new guy she met to her female friends, you can get a chance to have a character describe even your central characters and let the reader know how they look:

"Sandy, Ashley, I've got to introduce you to Joey while we're here," Loelia said as her two friends' eyes glossed over the mass of partygoers standing around. "He's the boy with the blonde ducktail, blue eyes and goatee wearing the blue ski jacket, torn jeans, flip-flops and green visor".

Disagreements among characters can also give you a picture of what the character may look like:

"Lindsay's the thin girl with a blonde ponytail, green eyes and big hands wearing the black tank top, shorts and moccasins with yin-yang earrings," Karen explained to Dave.."

"Lindsay's hair isn't blonde," said Laqueisha with a this-is-absurd tone in her voice, "It's brown."

Style[edit]

You may or may not want to include things like the size of your character's hands or the shape of her ears. But you should definitely make a mention of such things as facial hair, jewelry, piercings, tattoos, nail paint, face paint or bindis if your character has them. Things like the firmness of a character's chin or how close together his eyes are don't tell you anything about your character's personality, except through stereotypes that may not have any basis in reality. But a person consciously chooses to grow a goatee, or to wear an ankh necklace, or to get a tattoo (and chooses what the tattoo should be of). If nothing else, points of style will always tell you about a character's taste.

If you have a character who is not the central character, you should definitely describe these things when a character comes up (unless he has tattoos or a navel ring or nipple ring that are hidden from view, in which case you can have the other character find out about them later).

If this is the character who appears at the beginning of the story, there are other ways to tell the reader about it. You can have your character cleaning out her navel ring (and her navel after she's taken it out of it). When your character with a beard gets up in the morning, have him trim his red beard. When she gets dressed, have her put on her puka necklace.

Accessories (as well as clothes) can also come up with discrimination. If a restaurateur refuses to let Stephanie in because of her septum ring, that gives you an opportunity to let the reader know she is pierced. Max could brush up against the high school principal if the latter tells him that the school dress code forbids him to wear that gothic face paint.

Sartorial description[edit]

With sartorial description, you have a lot of leeway in how much and how often to describe. You can describe what a character is wearing in every scene, in full detail. Or you can just describe your character's clothes in the first scene in which she or he appears, and imply that that is typical.

Consider describing the color of each garment: a black T-shirt, a white T-shirt and a yellow T-shirt have three distinct feelings to them. Your readers might even be curious to know whether Mark is wearing a green-and-blue-striped polo shirt or a green-and-white-striped polo shirt. Colors all have different associations, pink being bubbly and girly, beige being suave, orange being earthy with a 70's vibe to it, teal being grungy, but older writers be informed: black clothes are no longer the exclusive domain of morbid or "loner" type youth. Go to any high school that doesn't have uniforms today and black is as basic as blue or white. That brings up another point: less common colors, such as yellow or purple, will be connected with the kids who really stand out.

Perhaps a character has a favorite army jacket or baseball cap that she or he wears in every scene. That can be her or his trademark. If so, you can mention it the first few times the character pops up, then stop mentioning it. Some people wear the same thing every day -- if so, you can just mention in the first scene that that Justin always wears khakis and a black turtleneck, or that Liisa appears in her usual leather jacket, jeans with the knees torn and Birkenstocks. Other people dress differently on different days -- if so, you can describe what Tiffany is wearing each day to exposit her full variety of moods. Or maybe you have a character who appears in a dress shirt to school, but wears tie-dye T-shirts on the week-ends. Contrasting the two scenes can tell you something about his chameleonic attitude.

Maybe your character always wears preppy clothes, or consistently dresses like a punk, or is perpetually decked out in hip-hop garb. You might simply say that the character is "wearing preppy clothes" (or whatever), rather than listing the specific items of clothing.

If it's been a while since you attended high school, drive up to your local high school around lunchtime when the students are out and around, and check out the clothes. Find out what articles of clothing are the most common, what percentage of the teens are wearing different colors, and what brand names show up (for you Gen Xers out there, Nike has taken a hit in popularity since you went to school). Then if you want to write a story set in the present day, the assortment and distribution of different clothing styles will sound authentic. (Of course, if you're zeroing in on a select group of gothic students or your story revolves around the "mean girls", you'll want to overrepresent one particular style, but if you want your characters to represent a cross-section, you better be prepared to observe how the whole student body looks.)