The Faceless

I hired a developmental editor to take a look at the first part of my new novel. She’s very sharp, but not very experienced. I may have more to say later about other observations that she made; right now I want to look at her response to the physical descriptions of characters and settings. Some of them bored her.

Let’s look at a couple of passages. Here, in chapter 1, our viewpoint character, Licinia, enters a room where Albinus and Graecinus are standing. Licinia knows them well. Here is how I introduce them:

Albinus and Graecinus were both wearing well-cut, brightly colored new tunics, Graecinus because he had been invited to the banquet and Albinus because he wasn’t about to let Graecinus shine any more grandly, on this special day, than he did himself. Dark and handsome in a thin, uncertain way, Albinus was only a few years older than Licinia. His mouth was narrow but full-lipped between hollow cheeks, his chin long but receding. Graecinus was nearer thirty, and more sturdily built, even a bit pudgy. His gold-blond hair, plastered down by oil, curled forward at his temples.

The editor’s response to the second part of this, starting with “Dark and handsome,” was, “A bit bored here. Delete?” That’s two sentences for each character, and she’s bored.

In chapter 2, another important character, Licinia’s father, appears for the first time. Here’s what I wrote:

Acer strode into the atrium, seeming to fill it with his well-fed bulk, though it was a large room, with three pillars along each side wall and a rainwater basin in the middle. At forty-three, Acer was bald except for a fringe of black hair, which at the moment was tousled by sleep and standing out in tufts. Prominent bushy eyebrows gave him a forbidding countenance, but the severity of the effect was moderated by a dimpled chin, wide plump cheeks, and a little turned-up nose. He was clad only in his shift, and he was barefoot.

The editor flagged the two sentences starting with “At forty-three” as follows: “I like the detail about him being in his nightclothes but am a little bored by these two sentences of description.”

Again, two sentences. To me, this kind of response from an editor is all but inexplicable. I take it as axiomatic that the reader will want a physical description of an important character when that character first appears. In this case, Acer’s character is hinted at: He tries to be stern (“forbidding countenance”), but he can never quite pull it off (“a dimpled chin” etc.).

Just for kicks, I grabbed a Ross MacDonald mystery off the shelf. I’ve been reading a lot of MacDonald lately, and he is, if anything, laconic in his descriptions. Here, on page 8 of The Zebra-Striped Hearse, he gives us our first glimpse of Colonel Blackwell:

I’d looked him up after the phone call and learned that he was a Regular Army officer who had retired soon after the war from an undistinguished career. He was a fairly big man who had begun to lose his battle with age. His brown outdoorsman’s face made his white hair seem premature. He held himself with ramrod dignity. But his body had started to dwindle. His Shetland jacket hung loose around the shoulders; the collar of his shirt was noticeably large for his corded neck. His eyebrows were his most conspicuous feature, and they gave him the air of an early Roman emperor. Black in contrast with his hair, they merged in a single eyebrow which edged his forehead like an iron rim. Under it, his eyes were unexpectedly confused.

That’s nine sentences. MacDonald is a good writer, and you should note that in that passage the military aspect of the man’s character is underlined by “battle,” “ramrod,” “Roman emperor,” and “iron rim.” It’s a physical description that also reveals an important facet of the man’s character, even at the expense of realism. An iron rim? Really? Eyebrows are made of hair! I’m not happy about “unexpectedly” either. It’s possible that what MacDonald was aiming at here is that the colonel’s eyes (that is, his facial expression — eyes themselves can convey nothing) were in unexpected contrast to his military bearing. But we already have “started to dwindle,” the jacket hanging loose, and the collar being too large. Those details undermine the military bearing, and that leaves “unexpectedly” dangling unexpectedly loose.

But that’s just me nitpicking. The point is, if you don’t describe an important character the first time he or she appears in a story, you leave the reader groping in the dark. Such descriptions are not always the most memorable prose, but even when they’re strictly workmanlike, they are both necessary and, by default, inoffensive.


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