We have a common saying: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Like all of our colloquialisms, we hardly ever apply it to the situation that it describes. Perhaps we should look deeper than the jacket cover when selecting a novel from the library, but more often we use this expression to say “don’t judge another person by the way that they look.”
That’s a worthy notion, but it is ironic that we use this saying to express it, because this saying is totally false! Within the actual literary world we are expected and encouraged to judge every character just by how they are described.
The Economy of Words)
Writers are frequently told to say what they need to say in as few words as possible. There is a scene in the film A River Runs Through It, in which a young boy is taught how to write by his father. He repeatedly brings his essay for review, and is repeatedly told to write it again in half as many words.
Sometimes it is pleasant to indulge in a beautifully detailed bit of scenery, but as a general rule, the longer you take to say something in your story, the less words you now have to tell the rest of it. One trick that greatly helps reduce one’s word count is to make each word work harder, i.e. to make it stand for more than one thing.
Consider this description of a character:
He wore a long cloak, hat, and gloves, each of them quite stiff and uncomfortable. He was known abroad for his cold and calculating manner.
That’s already pretty economical, but let’s see if we can’t get all of our points across more succinctly. We will do so by describing his clothing and manner in the same moment.
His cloak, hat, and gloves were black and stiff, dark mirrors of his soul.
Nearly half as long. In fact we can probably drop the last statement and only describe the clothes. Readers already know to extrapolate the manners of the man from the adjectives which surround him.
Judge By Its Cover)
Which brings us back to the original claim. An author keeps their story concise by inviting the reader to judge things strictly by their appearance. Darth Vader walks in clothed in black, with a helmet that looks like a skull. Meanwhile Luke Skywalker is clothed in white, sandy haired, and youthful. Sauron is a single, giant eye wreathed in flame. Frodo is a “stout fellow with red cheeks, taller than some, and fairer than most, with a cleft chin, a bright eye, and a perky personality.” Is there any question how you are supposed to feel about each of these characters?
But this is not only for characters, either, it applies to settings as well. Consider this description of the approach to Julian’s House, in the book of the same name:
Inside the gate a silence falls. Leaves stir and are still. At the foot of the porch steps the silence deepens, wrapped around with the fragrance of the shallow pink roses that twine the uprights and shadow the wide boards with their leaves. And
yet it is more than a silence…
Is it even necessary to mention that this house is haunted? We already know it from the quality of the adjectives being used. There is some very careful word choice going on here, which if slightly altered, would change the tone entirely. For example, consider the mentioning of “shallow pink roses.” Had the author, Judith Hawkes, used the phrase “bright pink roses” we would probably get a feeling of gaiety and happiness. But by using that word “shallow” we instead have a sense of somber beauty, something has faded and moments have been lost.
In fact, even if an author isn’t striving for succinctness, they still need to choose descriptive terms that fit the image for their characters and scenes. A Christmas Carol tells us straight-ahead that Scrooge is a mean, tight-fisted, old man, but then reinforces that fact with how it describes his appearance:
The cold within him froze his old features…shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait…and [he] spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.
And later on the effect is still further strengthened in the dialogue. Note how his phrases are set apart:
“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.
“Nephew!” returned the uncle, sternly.
Nephew Fred is pleading and good-natured. Uncle Scrooge is stern and returns abruptly. In a previous post we talked about the difference between showing and telling. You can tell the audience that a character is good or bad or crazy, but you better back it up by showing them that quality as well. Carefully selecting descriptive terms that reinforce these ideas is one way of doing just that. It lets the reader feel the reality of their personality.
Keep the Unspoken Law)
This is a powerful tool for an author, but it has to be wielded appropriately. If Charles Dickens had told the audience that Scrooge was a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” but then proceeded to describe his appearance as “red-cheeked, pleasantly fat, and fair-skinned,” something would have felt amiss. All the more so if he then spoke with little fits of giggles and eye-winks.
Yes, of course, this goes against the conventional wisdom of “don’t judge a book by a cover,” but that is advice for real life, not fiction. In real life some of the worst crimes are committed by the most handsome, most sincere looking people, but in a story if someone looks good, they are good and if they look bad, they are bad.
A villain might have a vain or prideful beauty, but never a wholesome warmth. They might have eyes that hypnotize and bewitch, but never a look of kindness.
You can try to defy these rules if you wish, but you run the risk of confusing and frustrating your readers. Encouraging your reader to use this shorthand of judging a character by their description is not a bad thing, it allows you to communicate more accurately, but also more succinctly.
Last week I made use of these principles when I introduced a teddy bear, describing him as somewhat deflated and stooped. He spoke somberly and cynically, and immediately suggested to the heroes that they should stray from their path. With that sort of personality-signalling, I do not believe it surprised any reader when this bear kidnapped one of the main characters out of pure spite. We were already quite sure he was up to no good, and it is only fitting now to see our suspicions justified.
This next Thursday I will continue that story, and in it our main hero will meet several more characters, all of which will be wearing their hearts directly on their sleeves. Even if he can’t see through their lies, the audience will have no trouble doing so. Come back then to see how it turns out.