I must admit it from the very start. Unless the physical description has some bearing on the story, I don’t particularly care about such things like the color of a character’s eyes, her complexion, her height or whatever else.
I don’t care if the heroine has a shock of curly black hair or her head is instead as hairless as the ass of a two year infant.
As a result, also when I write I tend to keep descriptions as short and functional as possible to the story I’m telling.
I’m not alone in this. Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked, says he doesn’t particularly love physical descriptions in novels. Judging from their works, Elmore Leonard and Hemingway aren’t fond of detailed physical descriptions either. As for readers, many among them appreciate a somewhat restrained and parsimonious approach to physical descriptions.
Drawbacks of physical descriptions
The reasons I pay little attention to the physical descriptions of the characters in a novel are quite simple. To start with, usually characters are much more interesting for what they do and think.
I mean, if you want to admire a picture you go to a museum. Instead in a book you expect the different characters to go about a lot, doing something. Not posing.
Another important drawback of physical descriptions is that they don’t offer much variety. Of course, unless for your novel you’re planning to create a host of characters that would fit well in a freak show.
Just think of the times you met a character whose eyes were as green as emeralds. Or a character who had a perfectly chiseled chin.
So if we want to put in some physical description nonetheless, we’d better work hard to make it functional to our story and introduce it early on. In fact, there’s nothing that puts me off so much as discovering on page 250 that the heroine I’ve pictured in my mind as a pretty brunette has instead a shock of black-jet hair.
Another problem of physical descriptions is that readers tend to mix them up in their mind. As a result they can find it difficult to easily identify all the different characters if these are not overtly pointed out by the author.
The fact is that memorable characters are the result of complexity and conflict. And often you have to work hard on physical appearance to make it worthwhile resorting to it–sort of like in the picture above.
What are character tags?
In fiction writing, a character tag is a device used to help readers more easily identify a character. It’s a description, not necessarily a physical description, that calls to mind a character’s traits and personality in an unique way.
Character tags can have to do with a lot of different aspects. Things like dialogue, body language, physical traits, scent, and strong feelings and convictions, just to name some.
However, even if a character tag is intimately linked to the character it relates to, it should never be used as a replacement for character development. The reason is simple. A character tag functions as a resume. But if there’s no underlying character to start with, our character tags are going to be built on thin air. They will be felt as preposterous and inconsistent by readers.
Character tags – what they do?
Character tags turn an otherwise static and ultimately uninteresting description into a lively and intriguing one.
Take the example A below. We have Cassie wrinkling her nose. This small action can help us to have a better image of Cassie in our mind. In fact just as eyes are naturally drawn by movement, our mind too tends to pay more attention to actions than to static feature.
This is why while a phrase like Cassie had a small and nice nose can go unnoticed, the fact she wrinkles up her nose often is not.
Cassie wore a red miniskirt, a white camisole, high heel sandals of the same color, and a pair of black sunglasses. Her small nose wrinkled up when she entered the bar. But she was too thirsty, so she went to the counter and ordered an iced espresso.
Of course, character tags can be pretty much anything. But, in gereral, the most effective character tags involve a certain degree of action.
For example, a writer may well give one of her characters eyes as black as obsidian to signal he has a dark secret, or a nebulous past.
But that would be a poor way to carry out her idea. As a matter of fact, authors have at their disposal many other means to hint at something like that. Way more effective and eclectic means.
I use the following three examples just to give you an idea.
Claude smiled a lot. Way too much indeed. After a while you got the feeling he smiled also while laying in his bed in the lonely darkness of his bedroom. You got the impression his smile was more of a crystallized rictus than a genuine expression of friendship and camaraderie.
Claude smiled. And for an instant his eyes came to life. But it was a matter of an instant. The sparkle of life flashed once, only to be immediately replaced by that otherwise perennial expression of barely repressed sadness.
Claude had a slight limp. So slight as to be almost unnoticeable. Yet once you zeroed in on it you could no longer discount it. That limp was an old story, Betty had been told in confidence. And she was sure of that. But she had also the vivid impression that limp was the result of something ugly.
In B, after the initial description, the dark secret can then be suggested just using the words crystallized rictus. Isn’t it nifty?
In C the focus seems to be more on feelings, hence the choice of repressed sadness.
Finally, in D it’s the limp to remind us readers that a dark secret lies in the past of the main character.
Even though character tags can be pretty effective you should always keep clear from stereotypes when you use them–of course, unless you want to use such stereotypes for a good reason.
You should also try hard to keep them to a minimum. In fact like too many speech tags can turn even the most intriguing dialogue into an unreadable farce, also character tags can operate the same kind of black magic on your work.
As always when it comes to writing, quality wins over quantity (No, I’m not speaking about the number of books one has published. That is an entirely different matter.)
And you, do you have some preferences about whether or not and how characters should be portrayed? Tell me =)