I have broken a larger essay into segments to finish out this month.
Description is a mechanic very much misunderstood and misused. Modern authors and aspiring authors complain of the long and tiresome employment of it by anybody writing before 1980 or 70. The older authors often employ it ineffectually and indulgently, as the moderns do action, violence, and drama (to say nothing of what they do with things actually worthless). Of course it seems as if the moderns simply have not learned it because of their contempt for it and their tending to the vulgar. This shows one aspect of it: it is elegant and refined. It is probably the most cultured mechanic that can be used, and your maturity as an author in the sense of elegance or refinement is marked entirely in your skill with this mechanic.
Now, there are descriptions of environment, object, and character. The first is the generative of culture and refinement. The last is the generative of art and effect in the book. The middle is generative of use and will likely push your plot along most effectively of the three.
For the first, I recommend Chesterton. I did not know how to describe worth two cents or for anything but materialistic purposes until I read Chesterton. He writes extremely beautiful descriptions that have a poetic significance. This is valuable to have because it obeys and balances the demand of the moderns (that nothing should be done that is not useful, meaning subservient to the plot) and also the classicals (that there needs to be an elegant refinement extraneous to the plot). I will include an example from him and then perhaps my own book:
“The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its skyline was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical. It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable. The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit in to them. Nor when he met the people was he disappointed in this respect. The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not “artists,” the whole was nevertheless artistic. That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face—that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat—that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others That scientific gentleman with the bald, egg-like head and the bare, bird-like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biological creature could he have discovered more singular than himself? Thus, and thus only, the whole place had properly to be regarded; it had to be considered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail but finished work of art. A man who stepped into its social atmosphere felt as if he had stepped into a written comedy.”
That is from The Man Who Was Thursday, a poetic, comedic portrayal of the reality of the tragic world of politics of the days of Chesterton. If you read the book, you will see how that exquisite opening suggests the whole meaning of the book, which is not easily grasped, but rather has to be intellected in a complex manner.
“The sun rose on Saint Patrick’s Easter Sunday above Eireann like the Christ Child in a manger on Christmas, or the candles lit on Cnadlemas. As often happens, at that most exceptional time of year, newness replaces the dreary sorrow of Holy Saturday and the outright evil darkness of Good Friday, when everything is hidden in the shadows of Hell. It is often assumed that terrible things are accomplished in that fiery bastion on that day, when the devils have free run of the world. But the devils are never free, and, regardless, all of this is absolutely corrected on the dawn of Easter. For it was not the devils which invaded the Earth, but rather, God Himself Who invaded Hell and set forth such a shining light of new dispensation that all Creation felt compelled to echo and reenact it every year.”
That is from my book Saodfàil. I then go on to give every character’s interpretation of the weather, which is all over the board. In this case, I am creating a great juxtaposition and description and suggestion from the previous days, which are described accurately by the references to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and then, with God’s help, I am suggesting that something outside of all of what has been said so far is to intervene, namely Christ, and it will be good and complete. So you see, weather, which might not have been mentioned at all, is made a shining encapsulation of the whole plot, allowing the reader both to rest and reflect, which as St Aquinas says, is how a man gains knowledge.
Character description might come more naturally, but it is prone to more sin and also can be done very amateurishly. For the sin, see my work on the Decalogue and the sixth Commandment.
For the amateurish tendency, it comes out in an over-need to describe the characters. Some of this is simple ignorance, which is to say, what is attempted in order to advance the plot should rather be externalized from the character and described within the environment, as I gave the example above. Chesterton is doing the same thing, as the first specific person he mentions actually is the main character, and his whole personality and experience is well-described by this little neighborhood which he occupies. In my own writing, I give you the continuation:
“That was how it was when the pilgrims emerged from the Roman wreckage. All of them but one misinterpreted the signs.
“Connor Mac Byrne, for his part, saw an irony in the well-lite world that was dominated by the majestic sun on judgment seat in clear blue sky. It reminded him of the starkness of the gallows. The gallows, too, had been used in Druidic sacrifice.”
Now you see the character dower and grim, but I never said he was dower and grim.
Sometimes, the over-need to describe characters results from a deeper problem with the development itself of the character. This I hope to deal with in its own proper place. Suffice it to say two things: 1) A character does not have to be fully described at any time, for it cheapens them, and so, too, you do not need to fully understand them yet anymore than your reader; and 2) there are certain things to avoid. Women should not be described in a male manner (they should not be heroic, nor physically strong, nor dressed in practical clothes, nor aggressive), nor should men be described in a female manner, and there are many tiresome clichés to shun while there are also archetypes to exploit. A good morality will reveal which is which to you.
Let me reiterate number one, because it will help with character description immediately: Describe much less. Allow all of your characters to reveal themselves slowly over time. Give them no need to lay every part of themselves in the open, and employ much mystery. I will search for an example:
“The ache in his head flared, and he stretched out to dispel it, but it did not help. He closed his eyes, and it made it worse. When he opened them again, the old man was gone. He breathed heavily, Nothing made him feel better.
“He had to get a grip. He had to clear his mind and remember the four last things, or remember the tenets of the Order, or remember his oaths, something. His oaths. Sworn to protect. Age of thirteen. There is no power on heaven or earth that can prevent a man from defending the innocent. I will defend the innocent, for I am a power on earth. I am a man who desires heaven. I have power given to me by God. I have fingers strengthened for battle. Though peace consumes me, though I am a maker of peace, I will not fear to defend the innocent, for this brings with it a great reward from heaven. The innocent are children, are the makers of children, are the family members, are the free and unarmed, are the sleeping, are the distant and the near, are the last to speak, are the strong men and the weak women who do not want to fight. The innocent may have strength. The innocent may have arms. The innocent are known by their words, their actions, their thoughts. I will defend the innocent.
“’I will defend the innocent.’
“’He told me you were a little delirious, sir,” a man said beside him.
“David opened his eyes and looked at a knight as if he had always known him. He wore battle armor. His face told him to be middle-aged, long past the terms of chevaliers. On his breast was a scrap of brown cloth, and the same thing also hung from his neck, an embroidery picture of a man leading a donkey with a pregnant woman upon it, halos about their heads. He had the hardness of a knight, and his eyes held the wisdom of any old Order man. He asked, ‘Are you well enough to answer my questions?’
“’Who are you?’ David asked.
“He smiled. ‘It’s not important.’”
I could go on with this excerpt because I very much enjoyed writing it, and it has been probably over a year since I read it. Regardless, you get the idea. Here we have a character with whom the reader is very familiar, David, and a mysterious and significant new character. Now, this character artfully dodges revealing himself, and even when he gives his name, he does it while pronouncing sentence and leaving. That is interesting to look at:
“The knight said, ‘I am Sir Joseph Moore, and I have known a wife. It is said men will keep on marrying and giving their daughters in marriage until Our Lord returns upon His cloud in glory. I do not doubt this. To have met you, Sir David, and hear that this is your ambition, sheds such light on what I have heard of you as you could not imagine. I worried that you would be inscrutable. But I have met a base man with the fires of passion, and now I think I understand what St. Paul said.’
“’I am not a saint,’ David said.
“’You are like Solomon, I think, and your ancient days have served you little good. Do you know when your sickness will pass?’
“’A week,’ David said.
“’Well,’ the knight said, rising, ‘you shall have to join us in our journeys, then. I won’t abandon the innocent on the road, no matter what is said of me.’”
You see here how he throws out some details about himself, but that is it, and he explains no farther. This, too, is done more with dialogue. I limit myself in the early description of his actual body, focusing more upon his clothing, which signifies his association, and then even with the specifics about him, I compare him rather to anybody else of his association.
Why did I do this? Why did I not describe his hair color, his build, his wife, his expressions, etc.? Well, the simple answer is this: I did not yet know enough about him. You can fill in all that, but I wanted to give him a chance to show himself, and this he did only modestly, and only in relation to who he was dealing with and what he was about.
Hopefully that is helpful.
Object description is easy. It indicates the significance of an object, though it can be employed to show simply a character’s fixation o the object, if, for instance, he is distracted by it from his duties. A single example from the same book suffices:
“David entered his room with no caution at all. His rifle was not with him, and if someone had been hiding in a corner to ambush him, he would have laughed at it. He went to the desk and fell into the seat like a sack of potatoes, almost tipping it over before catching himself.
“That moment of off-balance tottering brought him sharply into focus. He noticed another thing on the desk which he had neglected. It was a phone.
“This he stared at. It was a tan, plastic thing, with buttons which something suggested to him did nothing. It had a mysterious attraction, this useless thing. He reached his hand out slowly to it. He would call the front desk. That would shed some light on the situation.”
In this circumstance, the character is considering proposing to a woman, and is overwhelmed by it. The description of the phone is nothing but something to show how distracted and lost he is in his thinking. I do, however, use it to advance the plot:
“The phone rang as his fingers touched it. He jerked back. The ringing was a jarring, artificial sound which bothered him deep down in the sand of his being. Hurriedly, he picked it up.
“’Hello?’ he said.
“’You’re getting too emotionally involved in this thing,’ Sir Joseph Moore’s voice told him from the other end. ‘You need to end it soon.’”
There are some significant mystical things happening here, but the crux of it is that the internal situation of the character is described externally by his fixation on the phone. And then, because it is an object, it can cause some event either of the character’s choice or someone else’s, because it can be the object of an action.
Thus for description. Name is next, then number, then time, and then location.