Under Siege #3: Beautiful, Smiling Breasts, or 5 Tips for More Interesting Character Descriptions

I was planning to write about literary agents this week, but I found myself drawn, despite myself, to another topic that has been on my mind a lot lately: breasts.  Allow me to explain.  My agent—Ian—gave me four basic tips for writing, and they are good ones: 1) avoid adverbs if possible; 2) show emotion, don’t tell the reader about it; 3) shun clichés like the plague; and 4) make sure your descriptions are properly descriptive.  Of these four sins—adverbs, narrated emotions, clichés, and empty descriptions—the last is perhaps the most pernicious.  Which brings me back to breasts.

My copyeditor for SIEGE pointed out that my descriptions of women’s breasts were a bit monotonous.  I would add that they were also nonsensical.  Of six references to breasts, I described them four times as “full,” once as “ripe,” and once as “budding.”  What does full even mean in the context of breasts?  Can a woman have “empty” breasts?  I don’t think so.  And why so much attention to breasts in the first place?  Must we know the specifications of every female character’s bust?

My difficulties with breasts got me to thinking more generally about how I described characters.  I found that I had a couple of empty descriptions that I returned to again and again.  First, when describing facial expressions, I was really, really fond of smiling.  My characters smiled 131 times over the course of SIEGE, and often in the oddest of circumstances.  They smiled wickedly to show evil intent.  They smiled furiously.  They smiled lustfully.  They smiled bitter smiles of tortured sadness.  Try smiling a bitter smile of tortured sadness.  I don’t think it’s possible.

My second go-to empty description was to describe characters—particularly women—as “beautiful.”  I did this a startling 42 times.  The problem is that calling someone beautiful is not really a way of describing them.  It merely begs description.  In what way are they beautiful?  The answer, it turns out, often had to do with their full breasts.

Addressing all of these empty descriptions got me thinking of better ways to describe people, and I came up with the following useful tips.  I wish I had done this before I wrote the novel, but maybe these tips will prove helpful for other writers out there.  So, without further ado, here are my Five Tips for Character Description (with examples of dubious literary merit):

1)  Use other characters’ reactions to convey information about the person you are describing.  For instance:
-          He drew back in disgust.
-          The conversation ceased suddenly as Esmeralda stepped through the beaded curtain.  Every eye fixed on her.
-          Helen of Troy was said to have a face that launched a thousand ships.  Jenny had a body that had stiffened well over a thousand pricks.

Dialogue can be particularly effective in this regard:
-           “Disgusting.”
-          “Christ, he’s huge.”

2)  Use the character’s history to convey his or her qualities:
-          His appetite was legendary.  It was said he had once eaten an entire boar in one sitting.
-          More than one duel had been fought over her between jealous suitors.
-          He had once gone a year without uttering anything beyond “yes, sir,” or “no, sir.”

3)  Rather than focusing on the way the character looks, discuss how he or she moves:
-          He stood straight-backed.
-          She moved with the grace of a dancer.
-          He had the muscle-bound look of a professional wrestler and the bad hair to match.

4)  Focus on less obvious body parts (i.e. you don’t have to describe every female character’s breasts):
-          She had long, delicate fingers.
-          He had the thick, muscled forearms of a carpenter or steel-smith.
-          Her legs were impossibly skinny with knobby knees—like the legs of a newborn colt.

5)  While less obvious body parts are useful, keep distinguishing marks—scars, moles, shaved heads, missing limbs, etc.—to a minimum.  When used judiciously, such features can be very memorable—think the albino in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Too frequent use, however, makes them less effective.  At one point, no less than five major characters in SIEGE had prominent scars on their face.  That’s four too many.

And there you have it.  Now that I have that off my chest, I can get back to my regularly scheduled blogging.  So, next week, look out for Secret Agent Man…



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