Crowd of lego people

Practising fiction-craft: describing people

Last week I wrote about writing not to produce a finished work, but simply to practise an element of the writing craft, like an artist drawing hands over and over until they get the hang of it.

As I said then, I’d never tried anything like that before. In the past, the whole idea would have felt anathema – both to my own perfectionist brain and to my understanding of how I was “supposed” to write. But the idea of writing purely to practise the craft fits well with my new “write every day and don’t get too hung up on it” approach, so I wanted to try it out.

So for the last week, I’ve been practising describing people.

Painting word-portraits

Character description is an element my writing tends to lack.At best, my characters might get a single broad body-shape descriptor – “lanky”, “solidly-built”, etc. Or they might not be described at all. No one in my stories has distinctive facial features, wears notable clothes, or has interesting hair or tattoos or piercings (in distinct contrast from the people in my actual life). Historically, the pictures of characters that I’ve built in my head were vague to nonexistent, and it shows in how I write them.

It’s possible there is advice out there on how to practice descriptive writing. Being me, I just plunged in without seeking any of it.

My first attempt at the written equivalent of drawing hands was to simply raid magazines for photos of differentpeople, and for each one to write a short paragraph describing them in as much detail as I could.

I had limited success with that. I could describe what I was seeing, sure, but a lot of my descriptions felt utilitarian and boring.

She seemed lopsided: thin leggings clung to her legs while her upper half was so bundled up it was hard to make out any features. Her windbreaker was long enough to half-cover her hands, while her neck and face were wrapped around and around by a thick, black scarf right up to her ears.

There’s some nice writing there, I guess, but why do I care how this person is dressed?

Plagiarising for fun and profit learnings

Next I turned to a technique recommended on one of my writing podcasts many months ago (alas, I’ve forgotten which one): finding authors who do this well, and copying them word for word.

Copying out the works of other authors is, as it turns out, a time-honoured tradition practised by writers from Jack London to Robert Louis Stevenson. Still, when I first heard about it my reaction was horrified – in my mindset of all writing must be working towards something publishable, it felt like a shocking waste of time.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more sense it makes as a learning technique. There’s only so much I can gain through reading alone; the exact words and sentences slip through my head and leave only impressions behind. To improve my practical skills, I need to to not just read great books, but study them. I need to go back and analyse the elements that appeal to me: what’s being done there and how, and why does it work as well as it does?

So I’ve been combing through M. R. Carey and Becky Chambers, finding passages where the descriptive writing particularly grabbed me, and writing them out word for word.And it turns out that yes, copying other people’s writing really does help me get a feel for what it is they’re doing, and how to do it myself.

Invoking personality

The biggest thing I noticed from copying out Carey’s and Chambers’s descriptive passages was how strong an impression I got not just of a character’s appearance, but of their personality and/or role in the story. To try that out for myself, I switched to writing descriptions not of random people in photographs, but of characters I actually knew (in this case, from Steven Universe).

Right away, the difference in my writing – and my thinking – was profound. Using familiar characters, I could practise describing them in ways that gave readers a first impression of their most fundamental elements. I found myself asking: which aspects of this character’s look, their clothes, their habitual expressions or behaviours, best exemplify the personality I want to convey?

Thinking this way, my descriptions became less literal, more flavourful: they included fewer specific elements of a character, but focused on creating an impression that went beyond the obvious.They also became much more dynamic, focused as much on a character’s movements, changing expressions, and mode of speech as on static elements like hair colour.

Shep’s solid frame was softened by thick tracksuit pants and a loose T-shirt, just as their broad face was softened by kind eyes and a mellow smile. Their voice when they spoke was warm, wrapping around me like a blanket.

Creating characters

Finally, I’ve begun carrying a notepad around (again – one of those writerly habits I never seem to retain) and jotting down descriptions of people I see or speak to at work – trying to capture impressions of people I don’t have whole episodes to get to know.

Her hair was silver, but the short shock of it and the electricity in her unlined face rendered her age impossible to guess.

Again, I’m trying to give each description a sense of who the person is, not just what they look like. I’m not aiming for accuracy – my interactions are brief enough that I have no idea how true to life my impressions are – but I am trying to convey something interesting enough that it would draw a reader in, if the person being described was a character in one of my stories.

And hey, maybe some of them will be.

Do you have your own methods for “drawing hands”, a.k.a. practising the craft of writing? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Image by Eak K. from Pixabay
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