When Laurel first talked to me about doing a guest post, one of the things she mentioned as a topic was characterization. What interested her is how often reviewers had mentioned it when they reviewed my books.
Honestly, when the first few reviewers mentioned it, I thought they were just being nice. And when it continued to come up, I was mystified. I had no idea why people seemed to be interested in my characterizations. I don’t do anything special.
But I’ve been thinking about it. I suspect that my characterizations are one of those occasions when a weakness becomes a strength. You see, I’m faceblind, which means I can’t recognize faces. (It’s called prosopagnosia.) In fact, it’s bad enough that one night when my son woke me up because he wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t know who he was. I knew there was something familiar about him (he wasn’t a robber), but it wasn’t until he spoke that I knew who he was. Of course, you can’t get by in the world without being able to recognize people. So you develop coping skills. I learned to recognize people by the tone of their voice, their gait, and their body type.
Prosopagnosia also means that I have a hard time inferring people’s emotions by the looks on their faces (though not all people with prosopagnosia do). I’ve taught myself that a furrowed brow could mean anger or confusion. But the subtleties that normal people use to distinguish whether someone is confused or angry by their faces are beyond me. So I’ve learned to hear things in their voice—catches, emphases, pauses, etc., for clues to emotion. I’ve learned that posture means things, i.e., when shoulders hunch, someone is feeling shame, embarrassment, or depression. Even subtle things like the tilt of a chin or a muscle twitch (depending on which muscle twitches) can convey layers of emotion and character.
So now you know a lot about me, but how does this apply to writing? Because faceblindness governs the way that I experience people, the only way I know how to characterize people is by the ways I’ve learned to cope. I suspect that’s what strikes people about my characterizations. They’re different. I try to convey emotion through action and speech—it’s the way I understand and communicate it. Honestly, I sometimes think I’m ham-handed in it, that I’m too obvious. That a combination of a blink and a twitch is over-the-top. But other people don’t see what I see…
And maybe this is the gift that I can give other writers. Put yourself in my shoes. When you introduce a character, make them distinct by something other than their facial characteristics. (I can’t remember who a character is just because you’ve told me they have blond hair or are Asian.) As you develop the plot and character, think about how you would describe someone/some emotion if you couldn’t rely on a face to tell you. What else would give away a person’s character or their feelings?
And me…I’m trying to remember that most readers care about people’s faces. In fact, my first beta reader (my daughter) will often tell me, “Mom, you never tell people what Character A looks like.” In my thinking, I’ve told the reader everything about the character and what he or she “looks like.” Except I’ve forgotten the face. So I have to pull out my “cheat sheet”—a list that describes the facial characteristics of my characters—otherwise, I can’t remember what color hair or eyes they have.
If we do those things, we can all write better books.
C. M. Keller is an award winning novelist and the author of SCREWING UP TIME and SCREWING UP BABYLON. She loves old movies and poison rings. In her spare time, she searches for that elusive unicorn horn. Currently, she's hard at work on her next young adult novel, the third book in Mark and Miranda's story. She blogs about her time-travel series at Screwing Up Time Blog.
Check out Connie's time-travel awesomeness here:
Screwing Up Time
Book 2 Just released!
Screwing Up Babylon
Thanks, Connie, for sharing your experiences with prosopagnosia and making character descriptions more multi-faceted. I certainly learned a lot. How about you, readers?
Do your character descriptions tend to focus on facial appearance? How might you expand your understanding of character description with a reader like Connie in mind?