A long, long time ago I wrote a post about the appearance of characters, and by that I mean their physical appearance. I get so busy with other details when I’m writing that I sometimes forget how much appearance can define a character.
Sometime back I watched a vintage movie (1932) titled Penguin Pool Murder, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. So many times the acting in old movies is corny, not at all what we’re used to seeing now, but this one turned out to be quite a surprise. The heroine in this story is a prim school teacher named Miss Hildegarde Withers, and she’s quite a character.
I discovered, to my surprise, that this movie was based on a series written in the thirties about Miss Withers and written by Stuart Palmer. So I ordered a couple of the books to read because I wanted to see if they were as good as the movie. They’re even better, but that’s not where I’m headed.
In reading Murder on the Blackboard (also by Stuart Palmer), I discovered that I’m going to have to rethink my descriptions of characters in my books. Let me give you a few examples of why Mr. Palmer made me feel derelict in my writing.
In describing one of the characters, he wrote, “He was a man of medium size, with a thick head of colorless hair and a face that was seamed and wrinkled as a potato left too long in a damp, dark place.” Colorless hair or not, that was a colorful description. I think this type of writing makes the characters come to life for the reader.
Miss Withers isn’t approximately forty, but she’s in “the neighborhood of forty – the close neighborhood…” Her face has “most of the characteristics of a well-bred horse.” Excellent!
Too many times I don’t go into enough detail about the appearance of characters. That’s coming to a screeching halt (I hope). So what if one female character is short with red hair? Who cares if a man has a small scar at the corner of his mouth. And so what if Sandi has longish light brown hair? Surely the redhead has something like freckles that form a smile on her arm to distinguish her. Maybe she has skin as pale as the full moon in the midnight blue sky. Maybe the man with the scar has eyes that dance from object to object but never really look at anything, and they’re draped by eyebrows that a lawn mower couldn’t help. Does Sandi’s brown hair have highlights that leap out at you in the sunlight? She must have some distinguishing features that set
her apart from every other woman.
So from here on out, I’m going to work on my descriptions a little more. They don’t have to be lengthy, just memorable. I have one character that I really like, and I described her this way: “The door opened again and a very short gnome-like woman with a slightly hunched back pulled the door wide, inviting me in. She had scraggly short white hair, huge dark brown eyes, a bulbous nose that was too large for her face, and she looked around eighty. Her ears, slightly protruding, were also a bit big for her face. She hugged a housecoat around her middle.” I might have pulled this description off, although I was off the mark by not having her look like a Mrs. Potato Head.
Writers need to read the books of others because sometimes it opens our eyes. Maybe no one else would have read Murder on the Blackboard and had the epiphany I did, but in this case it just might have been the reminder I need to write more outstanding characters (at least in appearance).
Let’s see. “He had the ears of a fighter. What do they call those? Oh, yeah, cauliflower ears. He’d been punched too many times. His nose resembled a volcano after an eruption.” No, that needs more work.
Do you ever find that reading someone else’s work makes you take a second look at your own? Thank you, Mr. Palmer, for reminding me that there’s more to a story than just the storyline.
Until next time, have a great week and think about the people you see around you. How would you describe them?
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