Your face is the first thing people usually see of you and it tells a bit of your story without you having to say a single word. But unless you provide illustrations in your novels, the people reading your stories won’t have the luxury of seeing the faces of your characters. You have to provide them with that nourishment and help them to ‘see’ your characters in the flesh. In fantasy writing this can also go beyond the everyday as your characters may not even be human, but you still need to bring ‘life’ and realism to the features of your creatures, beasts and mystical creations. Here are a few tips on how to set the scene when your readers are faced (sorry about the pun) with your characters.
- Be lavish in your introductions – You don’t have to be lavish with every introduction of a new character, but it’s worth putting a bit more attention into your central characters because they’re the ones you want your readers to get to know. However, just saying they have blue eyes, brown hair and a cute button nose isn’t what I mean by ‘lavish’, you have to really get under their skin, for example: The door slammed and there he stood straight as a iron rod, his pure-white topknot almost touching the ceiling beams. He bowed fluidly, his colourless eyes never straying from the queen; the only person he deemed worthy of his attention in a room full of people. I watched him carefully as he strode into the room and couldn’t help but stare at the alien translucence of his skin and the deep furrows of age in his cheeks. Here was a man whose face had been pummelled by the hands of time, but who had more than enough steel in his eyes to challenge a man in his prime.
- Build your character’s facial attributes – It can be difficult to provide a full picture of a character’s face from the moment they step into the story, so you can build it bit by bit, especially if they’re affected by time, elements, magic, circumstances, madness, etc. as the story progresses. A bit like the “Picture of Dorian Grey” your character’s features may change subtley until you get a bloated old lout at the end. Or you may have a character who starts out good and ends up bad, so their facial features may change little by little to reflect gradual changes in their behaviour. Or, you may not wish to give your audience everything about how the character looks right from the start and provide little bursts to colour the character in as you move along.
- Tell it like it is, warts and all – Unusual or unfortunate facial features such as crossed-eyes, warts, scars, tattoos, piercings, lumps, bruises, hairy bulbous noses, boils, birthmarks, moles, etc. are worth adding to your story, because they can say something interesting about the character directly or imply it. For example, you may have an old crone with warts, eyes of a different colour and dark facial hair across her lip. Immediately you may go “oh know, it’s the bad witch from Hansel and Gretel!” only to find out later on in the story that this wonderful woman has a heart of gold and saves orphans from the workhouse when she’s not cooking dinner for homeless people. Or you may have the golden boy, with high cheekbones, long golden locks and a deep scar down one side of his face. Where did the scar come from, was it in a fight, could he be the bad guy or am I jumping to conclusions? So don’t forget that there’s more to a face than perfect skin.
- Avoid describing expressions using a simple emotion – So your character is puzzled or happy or sad or delirious. But what does that look like on their face? If you always apply the obvious emotional adjective it tends to strip your character of their dimensions, making them seem flat and lifeless. So instead of saying ‘Joe was puzzled’ what about if you say something like this: Joe looked up from his dinner and tilted his head to one side. One of his faded blue eyes narrowed slightly with an unspoken question over the rim of his glasses. If you don’t feel this is enough you can always let your character finish this off by saying “I’m a bit puzzled”, but that’s OK. Dialogue is a great way of expressing the emotion of your characters, but it still pays to occasionally put a bit of work into what that looks like on the face of the speaker.
- So the character isn’t human? – The challenge with non-human characters isn’t so much describing their face as helping your reader interpret their facial expressions (that’s if they have a face). If your character is humanoid or based on a real creature your readers know the behaviours of, you can usually get away with fairly human or animal types of expressions (for example if a dog bears its teeth at you and growls you can be pretty sure it’s not happy). But if a character looks like a blowfly how can we tell what its expressions mean? We tend to take for granted that we can ‘read’ facial expressions like the cover of a book but what does an angry blowfly look like? This is where you have to get creative. One option is to use someone else in the story to explain the character’s behaviour, after your other characters have observed the creature’s expressions. Or you can have something good/bad happen to your other characters after your unusual creation has crossed its eyes repeatedly 3 times and stuck its tongue out – then they’ll know what it means. Just saying ‘the creature was unhappy’ gives the game away, so let your readers figure it out along with your other characters.
- Use a newcomer to describe an existing character – Occasionally you may need to re-describe a character. It’s worth getting a newcomer to the story to do this as they may have a completely different perspective to what you’ve been trying to build about the character up to that point. For example, Joe’s winsome little smile may have been endearing to all the ladies in Lalaland, but the moment he tries the same expression in Holditland they string him up.
I’ve added a Pinterest page with some amazing photos of unusual and beautiful faces that are simply full of lavish things to knit into your stories.