Describing a character is just about the worst way to introduce a character to me.
Sadly, it’s also one of the most common.
Now, maybe it’s just me, but when a story opens up by focusing on a character–not just her or his appearance, but the character as a whole–I tend not to be interested in that character. Maybe it’s just my innate perversity as a reader, a deep-seated unwillingness to feel what someone obviously wants me to feel.
I think it’s more than that, though. I think that if an author wants to generate sympathy for a character, the focus should be on what the character is perceiving, not how some outside observer would perceive the character.
Sympathy, after all means “feeling with”. And people tend to be focused outward. Moments of introspection are uncommon, and they also tend to be intimate moments. (Which is why the trick of opening a story with a situation where the character would be introspective–preparing for a first date or a job interview, for example, tend to feel contrived and manipulative.)
So how does one introduce me to someone without showing me the person?
By showing me the world through the character’s eyes.
That’s what Point Of View is all about, and I think that Stylistic Point Of View (Style Of View?) is one of the most misunderstood and underused skills in a fiction writer’s toolbox.
People don’t see the world in the same way, and to a large extent, no two people live in exactly the same world. How you describe a scene can inform the reader who is seeing that scene–even when no overt mention is made of the character at all.
Let me give you some examples. I am going to describe the same place–a truck stop off the highway in Southeastern Missouri–three different ways.
Sometime about a half-century ago somebody had seeded the asphalt with Sinclair dinosaur bones and a crop of fuel pumps had sprung up in orderly rows, the haughty diesel pumps looking down across the rubber stained expanse at their smaller gasoline cousins. In between the two fields of pumps–this year’s crop featuring swipe card readers and LED screens–was the farmhouse of the convenience store that provided everything a 21st Century nomad might require, from rotisserie charred hot dogs to mobile wi-fi hotspots.
Now, I haven’t introduced a main character–or any character–yet, but I have introduced a specific voice. A bit detached, a bit ironic. The reader is prepared to meet someone with a whimsical viewpoint, who doesn’t take things too seriously, and who is prone to flights of fancy.
At mile marker 208 in the westbound lane of Interstate 44 a decreasing radius exit ramp led up to a Triple T truck stop. The approach to the station split just after MODoT maintenance ended. One lane for passenger vehicles, a wider and more shallowly graded lane for commercial trucks. Behind the station a two lane asphalted road meandered off in the direction of the state highway. The store itself sat behind a row of concrete bollards designed to protect the plate glass frontage from big rigs making overwide turns. The awnings over both the gasoline and diesel pumps was studded with the black plastic domes of surveillance cameras.
Same place, completely different world. Once again, without telling you who the story is about I have given the reader a taste of how that character sees the world. This is a far more serious voice. The reader is going to expect someone with a military or law enforcement background, who checks out possible exits and firing positions just by reflex.
The chaos of the big divided road didn’t stop at the glass building up on the hillside, it just slowed down. The big vehicles and the really big vehicles pulled off and parked and then just as suddenly started up and roared off back to the big road. The air smelled like machines and the liquid the machines drank and underneath that were the odors of food–food cooking, food sitting under bright lights, food spoiled and thrown away. People walked back and forth between the vehicles and the glass building, someone never quite being hit by a hurtling machine and squashed flat.
Now we are seeing the same place from a completely different viewpoint. This is a Style Of View who is unfamiliar with the concept of a truck stop, or highways, or even cars. With that opening paragraph the reader is going to expect a main character who is an alien or an elf or something along those lines. A modern reader will recognize the place, but also understand that it’s being described as it would be seen by someone to whom it is strange.
Now, these examples are just jotted down off the top of my head, over my first cup of coffee on a Saturday morning, but I hope they will serve to get the idea across.
If the viewpoint is well presented than it becomes unnecessary to describe the character. Specific details can be revealed when the story calls for them, but who the story is about can be conveyed in quite a bit of detail by how the story is told.