One of the great maxims of sketching is “Draw what you see, even if it doesn’t look right.” If you draw what you think the shape should be, contradicting reality, you come up with something that looks more like a child’s drawing with prescribed shapes for objects. You end up drawing symbols for the thing that’s there. The literary equivalent of this error is a cliché. There are many forms of cliché, but while we’re thinking visually, let’s look at how to avoid clichés in character descriptions.
How many times have you seen, really seen in real life, an aquiline nose? Fortunately, this cliché has mostly retired along with hoop skirts and corsets, but there’s plenty of modern offenders. How about a button nose? Can you really picture that, or is it just a stock effect? What about a bulbous nose? Getting better, but to really make description shine, write what you see. Yes, I’m telling you to spy on people at the coffee shop and describe their noses, but only on paper.
Example: “His nose, oblong and orange as a sweet potato*, honked into the handkerchief.”
Now you don’t know the width of each nostril or anything, but you probably have a good mental picture of this guy’s nose. And there’s the potential for a running gag. What if there was a character whose physical description was built—gradually throughout the piece—entirely of vegetable references?
There’s one caveat for this method, though: Just as every object is in focus in a picture, not every character gets detailed physical description and no character should have too much weirdness to his or her appearance. Some people just have noses. But when you’re writing in a public place and a little at a loss for inspiration, look around at noses and hands and anything else and do a little writer sketching.
* Substitute yam if that sounds better in your dialect.
Connie B. Dowell tutors and is assistant director at a university writing center. She writes for the full age-range of children’s literature, from picture books through YA. Connie puts her tutoring skills to work for fellow fiction writers through her editorial services. She lives in Virginia with her husband and an overly clingy cat. Find her online at www.bookechoes.com.