Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart. For me as a writer, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing my first or second draft, I did not understand them well enough to do that.
Where They Live
In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He’s aware of all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the heavy dark curtains, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”
Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. The apartment is all straight lines, its walls are pale gray, the furniture has white leather upholstery, and a painting by Joan Miró provides only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.
What They Wear
Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.
Marjorie dresses in long knitted skirts, tunics and drapy attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.
How He Feels about Them
My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.
Avoiding Cliché Traps
Superficial inventories (height, hair, eyes, clothing, voice) when a character is first introduced tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re akin to the first impression of someone, and nothing like the rich descriptions and telling details that reflect the real person.
Trying for an intriguing first draft detail, maybe, have you noticed how often authors give a female character green eyes? I am one of the two percent of people worldwide who actually have green eyes, so I notice this. A green-eyed woman has become a bit of a cliché. (One of my characters has them too!) In any case, eye color is not a significant detail. Rarely does a plot depend on the color of a character’s eyes (or hair). Height, maybe.
Some interesting research bears out the prevalence of male and female stereotypes in physical description that, thanks to overuse, no longer connect with readers.
Other posts in this series: Why an Architect?
Photo: andallshallbewell Tumblr page
I agree with you, Victoria, about authors ticking off the hair, eyes, etc. Much more interesting to have the telling detail. And as a member of the 2% green eyes club, I didn’t realize the number was that small.