Looking From the Inside Out

News Flash! February 24, 2018, 4:00 pm: Fantasy Fiction Spectacular at Page One.  I’ll be signing my latest, Asphodel, along with authors Brenda Drake and Gabi Stevens.  For more details go to www.page1book.com.

The last week or so, I’ve been reviewing what I have written on Wolf’s Search, the forthcoming seventh Firekeeper novel.

What’s in a Description?

Side Note:  There is no set release date for Wolf’s Search.  The novel will come out when I’m finished, and it’s as good as I can make it.  Because of how I write, I can’t tell you what it’s going to be about. All I can do is reassure you that this isn’t going to be one of those new novels in a series that jumps to the next generation. Okay?

One of the things I’ve been doing as I review is fill out characters’ physical descriptions.

“What?” you say “You mean you don’t work those out in advance?”

Not always.  Not usually, even.  Unless what a character looks like is important to some element of the plot, I often wait to get to know the characters before worrying about what they look like.  Adara in Artemis Awakening and Artemis Invaded is a good example of a character whose physical description I needed to work out in advance, both because of how it would influence Griffin’s first reaction to her, then because of her unusual genetic background.

In my “Breaking the Wall” novels (beginning with Thirteen Orphans) all the main characters have at least one Chinese ancestor.  How strongly the Chinese physical traits show was something I carefully worked out, basing it on how old the character was (therefore, how many generations closer to their Chinese ancestor), the ethnic background of their other forbearers, and a few other factors.  Even in the same family, different combinations come out, so I had some leeway.

I know that lots of writers “cast” their characters using movie and television actors.  Possibly because I don’t watch a lot of television or movies, this doesn’t work for me.  The closest I come is paging through magazines, focusing especially on advertisements.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the fact that I don’t watch much in the way of movies or television is why I don’t use visual aides to design my characters.  I think it’s because I write my characters from the inside out.  That means how they look isn’t very important.  Who they are is what is important.  From there, what elements of their physical description best show who they are tend to naturally come into focus.

Firekeeper is a good example.  When you think about it, she’s incredibly ordinary.  Average height.  Average build.  Brown hair, slightly curly.  Dark brown eyes.  What’s interesting are the things her life has done to her, especially the scars.  Her eyes draw a lot of attention, too.  People tend to see them as darker than they actually are.  For me, this is a result of her inhuman way of looking.  Unless it’s necessary for her to focus down tightly, Firekeeper keeps a wide focus, alert as any wild animal to changes in her environment.  Her body language is also subtly “wrong,” again a result of her upbringing among wolves.

In my newly-published novel, Asphodel, I took this tendency to not describe my characters to a new extreme.  The narrator (I can’t give you her name without a spoiler) not only doesn’t know what she looks like, she’s afraid to find out.  In Asphodel, characters change appearances repeatedly, but you – and they – always know who they are.

There are definitely times when a character’s physical appearan

ce plays into the story.  Blind Seer will always be a bit of an outlier because blue eyes are rare among wolves.  Sometimes a character’s physical description isn’t an issue at the time the character is introduced, but becomes so later on.  Derian Carter is considered relatively ordinary in the first three Firekeeper books, but in book four (Wolf Captured), his red hair causes him to really stand out.  He’s also tall and used to being so, so when he encounters people much taller than him, he’s always startled.

Remembering things like that is part of the fun.  And it’s definitely one of the reasons that I enjoy writing physical descriptions after I get to know the characters, rather than in advance.

7 Responses to “Looking From the Inside Out”

  1. Peter Says:

    “Honestly, though, I don’t think the fact that I don’t watch much in the way of movies or television is why I don’t use visual aides to design my characters. I think it’s because I write my characters from the inside out.”

    Perhaps it works the other way ’round? That is to say, you don’t watch a lot of film and TV because those media are really good at showing what a character looks like, but struggle at showing what’s going on inside the character’s head.

    Looking forward (as always) to the next book once it’s ready.

    • janelindskold Says:

      But I do watch visual media. I simply prefer anime and that doesn’t make for great character reference visuals since I don’t think of my characters as animated.

      My latest, as I mentioned in the post, is ASPHODEL.

      • janelindskold Says:

        I will say I got into anime because, at the time, it tended to have more character depth than most TV I encountered, but I am not in a position to judge it that is true now.

  2. James Mendur Says:

    I can’t cast short stories or novels. I write too lean for such things. First, it’s all about people (or otherwise) doing things and talking to each other. Then, I go back to what are basically outlines of characters and start coloring in who those people are. Sometimes, this results in changing some of the events or dialogue (wait, the first mate is Cockney? and a woman? now I have to go back and re-do all her dialogue and pronouns). Sometimes, the events or dialogue demand that the character look or sound or smell a different way. (No, I *can’t* make the cat orange and white, even though I just saw an adorable one on Twitter. He has to be gray because the song lyrics say he is.)

    I did cast a story when I was writing a screenplay, once. This was back when NaNoWriMo also had ScriptFrenzy every spring – write a script in a month. There’s a story, there, but … another time.

    Thank you for sharing this piece on how you write. I’m always fascinated to see details of how authors approach their writing. Most of the time, I hear authors talk about methods of a project (organization, plotting, etc.) but too rarely about details like these. I appreciate those insights.

    • janelindskold Says:

      The nice thing about having done the WW for so long is that I can do these little “pull aside the curtain” moments.

      Let me remind folks that some of the earlier WW on writing are collected in my book WANDERINGS ON WRITING, which is available as both an e-book and tradepaperback.

  3. futurespastsite Says:

    The late Mickey Spillane said he never described his hero because he thought his readers always thought he looked like them.

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