‘On a warm afternoon in the middle of May, 1925, when the butterflies flitted from daisy to cowslip and the grasses danced lightly in the breeze, Susie Smith sat and threw stones at the sea.’
Writers can be very visual creatures. Some of us know what our characters look like, from the colour of their eyes and hair down to the size of the nose or the distance between their eyes; and can be very clear on the kinds of clothes they are wearing. These writers know the layout of the rooms of their house, the furnishing and even the pattern of the paper on the walls. This trait has a tendency to come across in their writing, of course – there are plenty of novels which leave you in no doubt as to what you are supposed to be seeing…
…and then there are those writers to whom the appearance of their characters is more of a mystery than it is to most of their readers, who sketch the vaguest picture with one or two principal characteristics and leave you to guess the rest. And usually, it works.
It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. Writing is such a comprehensive creative art, requiring the creation not only of plausible stories, but also of images, sounds, even smells, and all using only the imagination of the writer and, subsequently, that of the readers. I recall one fellow writer saying to me, ‘I can’t imagine not being able to see my characters clearly. How am I supposed to describe them, if I can’t see them?’. A sensible question, and one which could be expanded to include the readers – how are they to experience the same sense of place, character and style as the writer, if the writer is a non-visual sort and gives them no visual clues?
The answer is quite simple. To the writer who says, ‘How can I describe them?’ I say, ‘Don’t.’ It really is as simple as that. A myriad excellent writers have got through their books without sketching any more than the barest detail – Terry Pratchett is a fine example – and yet that doesn’t stop the reader from conjuring up as much of a picture as their imaginations can manage. After all, imagination is not the preserve of writers and other creative artists – it is common to all of us, and no two people imagine the same (fictional) scene in quite the same way. Therefore it is that my solution to the descriptive problem is to let my readers get on with it. Dickens is ‘out’ and spare prose, with plenty of show-not-tell, is very much in fashion these days, so why waste precious words on hair texture, nose shape, flowerpot contents or number of rugs when you could be using them to muck on with the plot? Sit back, relax and let your readers do the hard work!
As I’ve intimated, I’m pretty non-visual – I have a vague idea of height, hairstyle, body shape and gait, and sometimes I can get an idea of clothing into my mind (but not very often) – so when I’m describing characters, description tends to be pretty limited and often comes out in the course of conversation. I cite an examples below from my series Tea And Militancy, set in 1925.
[Susie] turned to see her colleague, Rosie Meredith, standing on the cliff path, a brown hat with a most unfortunate brim crammed down over her heavy roll of hair and an anxious expression on her face.
This is Rosie’s first entrance into the story, and the sentence above is intended to demonstrate one salient point about her: that she is unfashionable. (In fact, it goes a little further, because the narration in this chapter is from Susie’s point of view and the sentence therefore demonstrates that Rosie is unfashionable and that Susie has noticed, ergo she must be at least aware of fashion herself.)
But just how the hat’s brim is unfashionable is left entirely to the reader’s imagination, because the point does not need to be laboured any further. It is an ‘unfortunate’ brim and that describes Rosie’s sartorial habits far more neatly than a whole paragraph of description could achieve.
It’s surprising how well this sort of hinting can work. Physical descriptions are really not my forte, and yet recently I’ve been startled at the correlation between my view of the characters and the views of my readers. Susie was introduced in her original story as ‘slight and fair’, and though she was later described as pretty and her fashionable style of dress was hinted at, they were never explicitly stated. 100,000 words later, I did a quick quiz of readers on their views on her appearance, and they came back almost exactly the same: smallish, slim, fair hair in a short cut (bob or crop), and very fashionably dressed. I then looked back through the hundred thousand words I’d written and realised I’d described her clothing a total of four times, and only once in detail. The character had done her own work, and pretty effectively! For reference, here’s what I came up with when I sketched her last night.
My comment is therefore, essentially, that big descriptions of characters aren’t necessary*. If the characters really live, people tend to see them almost exactly as intended. Sticking in the salient points and letting the reader do the rest makes for more elegant – and more rewarding – writing. After all, it can be quite helpful to the reader not to have too much to go on. One comment I was going to make on the subject of description comes from my perspective as a reader, and a non-visual reader, which is that when one is non-visual, large amounts of description can be, not simply distracting and unhelpful, but a source of some stress! I jest not – when presented with so much facial detail that the police would be able to construct a realistic e-fit from the prose alone, I tend to panic a little and shut my eyes, because I simply don’t have the visual memory to conjure up such a precise image – and yet I feel it is my responsibility to try, because the author clearly wants me to understand what it is they are seeing. It may seem insignificant, but it can make reading more a chore than a joy – and makes me more likely to put down the book in permanent fashion.
*I’d make the exception for very peculiar characteristics. One of my chaps has long hair, which is fairly unusual now but was very unusual in the 1920s – so it’d be a little mad of me to expect readers to anticipate that particular characteristic!
Now, having said all of that, I’m about to contradict myself. As you will have seen, I consider myself to be one of the non-visuals – or, rather, I thought I was. The revelation that, actually, I can see what I’m writing about came quite suddenly, when a friend mooted the possibility of collaborating on a sort of mixed-media fictional project (yes, I know it’s called television, but we don’t have that sort of budget). I jumped at the possibility, as it was something I’d been considering all along for my novel, which is very heavy on both music and art and would really suit both artwork and a soundtrack, but it turned out that neither of us was artistic (in the drawing sense), which was something of a disappointment until I picked up a pencil the other night and started to draw my people.
I didn’t expect to be any good at physical representations of my characters, given that I can barely call my own mother’s face to mind when I want to, let alone people who don’t exist in the physical realm (shh! Don’t tell them!), but I was pleasantly surprised at the results. They aren’t going to win the Turner prize, but there’s something tremendously exciting about seeing one’s people and places set down on paper for all to view. The sketch right at the top of this article is a digitally enhanced (by which I mean the faint pencil lines have been given more contrast!) photo of one of the sketches I did yesterday evening, to show Susie and Rosie’s first scene in Tea And Militancy.
Thus it is that this post finishes on a poignant note – at least, it is for me, because yesterday on my lunchbreak I did a sketch of my two soldier boys, Ambrose and Archie, ready to go off to war. I’ve not seen either of them in the flesh, as it were, before now, so this is lovely but as I said, it saddens me, mostly because I know what’s going to happen to them! (I’ve done a little more photo-manipulation to this one to make it a smidgen more like an Edwardian photograph. Hopefully it works).
The tradition of authors illustrating their own works is long, though some did it rather better than others. I was always rather taken with Arthur Ransome’s illustrations for his Swallows and Amazons books – even though they are little, simply done and contain no facial features to speak of, they are no less charming and evocative than Beatrix Potter’s far more elaborate paintings – and what would Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day be without those lovely line drawings? As Alice once said, ‘What is the use of a book without pictures?’ I’m looking forward to doing more sketches of my people and places, though I suspect the idea of an illustrated adult litfic book is enough to put a publisher off their quinoa and pineapple so it will probably end up as a harmless little diversion, but no less fun for that. However, I doubt this will be my last post on the subject of multimedia fiction.
That’s all for now. I shall try to stick more faithfully to my resolution to update this more in future!