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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Part 1 of Worldscaping: Yeah, writer, but what does she look like?

It's nice to have a god complex, as an author. We're creators of fantasy, writers of great worlds, compilers of adventure. It's a sweet gig, being an author.

In most contexts, a god complex is not a great thing. But in the world of writing, the author is god -- we're creating worlds, people, races, we're breeding conflicting, stirring up wars, making characters fall in love. Deleting what we don't like *cue evil laughter and stroking of white Persian cat*. Authors are playing the creation game, and it's a pretty awesome.

This good old Looney Tunes inspired shtick sums it up pretty nicely.

In genre fiction in particular, worldscape is a massive undertaking. So massive, in fact, that I am now introducing you to the first multi-part series here on Fantasy-Schmantasy: Worldscaping. And today, we're going to talk about your characters and, specifically, their looks.

There's a lot that goes into a character. Let's assume your character is human (there's probably going to be a whole post on non-human character building, but not even touching it today). For this human, you're going to need to know their personal history, career, social status, social circle, abilities/capabilities, are they shy, are they outgoing, are the talkative, serious, funny, quiet, stoic, sensitive, tough, empathetic, distant, warm, a loner, a leader, maternal/paternal, talented, bumbling, physical, cerebral, loyal, ambitious, courageous, self-sacrificing, self-indulging, powerful, powerless, coy, cold, etc etc etc.

Or, you know ... maybe the list is a little shorter.

There is a lot to think about when it comes to character creation, and maybe how your character looks just isn't something you've had time to put to paper. I know that's how it is for me.

I always know how my character looks -- in my head. I have images of my characters moving through the story; if I was an artist I would draw them up without a second's hesitation. As it is, you've seen my work in Paint -- drawing really isn't my forte, so I need to rely on my words instead.

Physical characteristics may not seem to be the most important aspect of your characters, but they are important. Your readers want to know what your characters look like, and they're going to do it on their own if you don't do it for them. As an author, I don't want people casting my characters willy-nilly -- I am way too proud and controlling to let that happen. Plus, I'm 95% certain that, left up to the reader, Megan Fox would be cast in every role. That how god complex thing? Yeah, this is related. I want readers to see my characters the way I see them. How we look is such a huge part of how the world interacts with us, that leaving out a physical description of the main character is omitting a huge chunk of the story.

But Ms. Blog-Lady, what do I do? you may be asking. (Just go along with it, okay.)

I'm glad you asked, dear reader.

It's easy enough to describe the others, the non MCs: the antagonist, the supporting cast. The protagonist can look at all of them and let us know what they're seeing, the same way that they can look at the trees and tell us what they look like. It doesn't have to be list-y, either. This isn't Renaissance poetry, we don't need a body blazon*. But here's the way to do that better. Don't just tell us how they look, let us know how their physical presence impacts or relates to the protagonist's. This is a great way to drop some hints about the protagonist's looks as well. Does the other character tower over your MC? Is their hair braided in a way that you MC envies because her hair is too short to copy it? Do they have dark eyes, like your MC? Are they paler than your MC? Stouter? Slimmer? Stronger?

Give us hints. It also makes these physical descriptions more interesting to provide a context. At some point, though, consider giving us a good look at your main character too. Find a random reflective surface for your main character to glance in at some point. If they're vain, this really works. If they're not -- well, look. We all check ourselves out a little. (Or am I just vain?)

What a conveniently placed mirror. Let me gaze into it and tell you what I see.

Here's another thing about why giving the reader a physical description of your characters is a really good idea. Remember how this is a part of a whole worldscape series? Here's the tie in: what your character looks like can be a way to build or help fortify your worldscape.

The way a character looks, especially in relation to others, can give us hints about race, social class/hierarchy, economics, gender equality, education and a lot more. If your character notices some people are clean and healthy and plump, but the majority are skinny balding and missing teeth, that tells me a lot. I know now that there is a stark socio-economic divide in your world, and that resources are not evenly or fairly allocated. I may extrapolate that there is a ruling class and a servile class. I may assume that there is low access to educational opportunities.

And based on how your main character looks, I'll have a solid idea of where she fits in. And that tells me a lot about her.

In summary, all of that personality stuff is fine. I want to know your character is smart and clever and no-nonsense. And it's great that she's funny.

But tell me: what does she look like?

*My goal every post is to write something so ridiculously ivory tower that I alienate at least one reader forever. That's my fantasy.

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