Tuesday, May 1, 2012

50S: How Do I Look? Character Description

Surrender Love / Fifty Shades of Grey
In a fairy tale, when a character says, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" we expect a vain person. The act itself makes a statement about the character. They are absorbed by how they appear.

New writers sometimes start with a grocery-list description as well. They do not yet possess the skill to introduce a character properly. They resort to the ploy of "telling" versus "showing." What tells you more about a character's personality? A description of how badly his shirt is wrinkled, or a line about his shirt being wrinkled because he loaned his iron to a surly roommate who left without paying rent and took the iron with him?

Can you use the "gaze into the mirror" line effectively? Let's compare how it's used in 50 Shades of Grey (50S) and in my book, Surrender Love (SL).

50S opens with this line:
"I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror." The protagonist then spends the next paragraph talking about how she slept with her hair wet (again) and repeats a mantra about not doing this. She rolls her eyes at herself. To ensure we know how the character feels, the author tells us this action is done "in exasperation" as if we don't know that is a valid reason for rolling one's eyes, especially when we have already been told the character is scowling with frustration. We then gaze into the mirror with the character as she observes: "...the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face..." who gives up on making her wayward hair behave.

What we learn: the character is female, frustrated, she sleeps with her hair wet and has done this before, she doesn't like her hair, she thinks her eyes are too big for her face, she is pale, has brown hair, and blue eyes. She is possibly self-centered.

On page two of chapter one, the protagonist of Surrender Love is also near a mirror. Luc Saint-Cyr's refusal to look into it does not give us a physical reference. Instead, it tells us about his character. Here's the passage. Luc has entered his penthouse, picked up a bottle of whiskey, and headed for his bed.

He sat on the end of it, refusing to face the man in the mirror across from him. He opened the whiskey, tilted it up, and drank half, wiped his chin, and grimaced. No alcohol affected him; he drank it for the memories of the people he’d loved and the times they’d shared. Luc wiped the top of the bottle with the heel of his hand and finished off the rest in two big gulps. Might as well have been tea. Nothing.
Drawing back the bottle in one hand, he paused, and then hurled it at the mirror above his dresser. Glass shattered.

We know several things about Luc from this passage. He's in denial, he has a drinking problem, he has memories that haunt him, alcohol doesn't affect him -- and that annoys him, his temper is at the breaking point, and he is not above breaking things when angry.
On about page twelve, Luc has experienced a recurring nightmare in which he faces his ex-lover, and which ends with an erotic, wet dream. He gets another moment with a different mirror.

He rolled out of bed, entered the bathroom, and stood, hands braced on the black marble counter, refusing to lift his head. Smears of semen coated his chest and belly. When he finally faced himself in the mirror, he stared long and hard into the solid black obsidian eyes. The sheen of sweat covered his dark skin. He curled his wide mouth in a sneer.
“You stupid, stupid bastard. You threw him away. You shoved him out of your life!” He slammed his fist into the face in the mirror; glass cracked and shattered into the marble sinks.

Now we also know he calls himself a stupid bastard, he has solid black eyes, dark skin, he is sweating, and he has a wide mouth. He surely knows that smashing his fist into glass is going to hurt, yet he does it anyway. The fact that he is aiming his fist at his own reflection speaks to his self-loathing. He is reckless, uncaring about himself, and furious enough with himself to take it out on his surroundings.

Without stating that Luc is frustrated, that his breakup with his ex fueled his anger issues, or telling the reader much about how he looks, we still come away a strong image of the character.

To describe a person, no matter what the viewpoint, avoid a laundry list of characteristics. Instead, allow actions to show us how they feel, what drives them, and a physical description is less necessary. It's nice to know what they look like, but if you show us the character in his or her element, we will figure out the rest for ourselves as the story goes along. Physical characteristics are not nearly as engaging as a well-developed personality with whom we can engage and interact. Please do not tell us about your characters. Let us see them.

(image: Surrender Love cover art by Anne Caine, Fifty Shades of Grey cover art by Papuga2006/ book copyright E.L. James quoted via Fair Use, for review)


  1. I can't believe this has no comments yet, Kayelle! Although I've been remiss in my blog reading, so I'm not one to talk. The MOTU/50 Shades phenomenon is something of a "perfect storm" of publishing, I think, but one of the two things that confound me is precisely what you describe here: lack of nuance. Of course, in fanfic, a writer doesn't need to spend a lot of time on character development - the characters are bought and paid for in the original work, and the writer is taking them out for a spin but the reader already knows them. I had hoped the rewrite would replace the "in case you forgot, Bella has brown hair and lacks self-confidence, and oh, by the way, she's a virgin" with something more nuanced. Didn't seem to happen, which was a disappointment. Overall, it didn't seem like the editorial red pen was unsheathed much prior to publication, as geography and travel times and Britishisms and other things that plagued the original MOTU remained in 50S.

    I look forward to the rest of your comparisons and comments!


  2. Thank you, Cat. True, as fanfic, it didn't need much characterization since the target audience already knew what the characters were like, and anticipated they would act a certain way. For those who read fanfic without knowing those characters, the writing is sometimes considered insipid. Those who read 50S and don't know that it was originally intended as fanfic about Edward and Bella from Twilight have no idea who these characters are or what their quirks might be like. I've seen only the first Twilight movie - and would probably be on Team Jacob if the truth be known - but 50S was pretty weak even as fanfic if you ask me. It didn't capture what I recall as the original characters' personalities. So to me, this was a disappointment as fanfic as well. I appreciate your comment.