Describing Beauty

If you don't remember, I suck at description. But that means I learn obvious lessons all the time and can pass the savings on to you!

Today's lesson: describing someone that is beautiful.

My problem was I didn't want to just say she was beautiful (although I did that too). I wanted to show it. But how? What features are beautiful? Long hair? Sparkling eyes? Pink lips?

Turns out (and this will be obvious to most of you, but such are the depths of my sucking) that the specific features don't matter. Like that old cliche about the eyes of the beholder, what matters is how the narrator feels about the character.

And you show that the same way you show any emotion: through comparisons, thoughts, actions, etc. For example:

Sister Victoria was a dark-skinned woman in her forties. She sat cross-legged on her own cushion, wearing the same white robe all the monks wore. Her hair was black as the shadows, curled at her shoulders.

What Hagai noticed most was her eyes. They were alluring in a way that made Hagai uncomfortable, only because she was over twice his age. He shuddered.

"Ten years ago, men would dance naked in the streets just so I'd smile at them. Now," she smiled, "they shudder."
There are all kinds of features here, but we don't really know Victoria is beautiful until the 2nd paragraph.

A red-haired girl in a white robe stood over Hagai. She wasn't much older than Hagai, though she was far prettier. She watched him patiently, her hands clasped beneath large sleeves, a polite smile on pink lips.
 Hagai straightened, scratching his head. "Uh, hi."
This one comes right out and says she's pretty (which is fine too, sometimes), though it doesn't say much about how Hagai feels about her, except that he's a little uncomfortable. Either way, that has nothing to do with her features.

"You're a pirate?" Sam asked her.

"Oy, ain't you the nummer." Then before he could blink, she was in his face with a blade under his chin. "Aye, I'm a pirate. Now give me a reason to cut you."
Bottomless eyes were cents away from Sam's. The smell of garlic and vanilla filled his head. He didn't want her to cut him, didn't want her to back off either.
This one hardly has any features at all (seriously, what does "bottomless eyes" even mean?), but there's no question what Sam thinks of her.

Anyone got any more tips for me?

(And before you go saying, "How can you say you suck! Those are great!" Let me remind you that these passages are the result of gobs and scads of revisions. Whatever good you think you see in them is the result of many fabulous beta readers.)

(Maybe one of these days I'll show you what these scenes used to look like.)


Matthew MacNish said...

I think you nailed it when it comes to mentioning observations made by other characters. It's a lot easier from a 1st person POV.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Oh, Sam. Sam, Sam, Sam. I cannot WAIT to read you again.

Wait, what? Oh, yes, descriptions. :)

How a character feels is key, not only in descriptions, but also in any kind of romantic/kissing scene (I know, we've discussed this before!).

There's power not only in how the character explicitly feels ("he didn't want her to back off either") but also in the subtext that is maybe even below the character's conscious recognition. Actions that are endearing, even if the MC doesn't recognize it as such. Movements that are graceful, even if the MC doesn't call it that. Or tremendous internal conflict that draws the reader like a magnet (and the MC too, even if they don't think so. At first.). This is how you make the reader fall in love with a character that your MC decidedly doesn't love. And provides a slow build for later in the story. Aye, now there's a trick mate. :)

Nancy Thompson said...

The very best way to describe something is to show the reader how the character feels about the subject, the emotion he or she is feeling & the depth to which he or she is feeling it. Nothing gets across a point as well as emotion.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Yes! Description has to be filtered through the character's POV. I think that's the secret to description.

Angela Brown said...

Filtering through reactions of others and the emotions emitted by the MC - great ways to get in descriptions.

Sage Ravenwood said...

Excellent post! My first thoughts on description went automatically to letting the characters action speak. We don't need to know if someone is beautiful to us, it's how the beauty appeals to the character. (Hugs)Indigo

Steve MC said...

Less is definitely more, and best to leave it up to the reader.

Like the opening of Gone with the Wind is
"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."

That's all that's needed. But then it has a full paragraph of description which one skips over 'cause one already has an image formed.

So yeah, it's all about reaction. Nations fought for Helen of Troy, but she's never described.