“What do you think is the world’s most recognizable container of information? It’s the human face.” –John Chipchase, consumer behavior analyst
People don’t just recognize us over time because of our faces; from the very start, it’s the first and primary fact they use in trying to understand us. Yes, it’s mixed in with a lot of other data—sex, height, build, posture, gait, tone and timbre of voice, diction, dialect, clothing, style, complexion, general health, odor (or, hopefully, fragrance). But it’s the face that seems to capture our essence best.
And though there are certainly types of faces—a fact that often conjures that eerie sense of having seen a certain person (or her twin) before—there is also a quality about the human face that far more often distinguishes the person to whom it belongs with unique specificity. We can’t imagine anyone else looking exactly that way.
To know the face is to know the person. Our faces are the roadmaps of our lives—they reveal our lingering innocence and hard-won experience, our openness and suspicion, our capacity for laughter, our bitterness, our anxiety, our lightness of heart.
And yet the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference. And given the face’s importance in our understanding of each other, this seems like a significant lost opportunity.
Why has this happened?
The ubiquity of photography and motion pictures over the last century may be at least in part responsible. The filmmaker Ingmar Bergman considered the face the most important subject of cinema, and it may be that, in light of this kind of competition, fiction simply surrendered the field (as did portrait painting).
Also, the relentless onslaught of images produced by photography, film, and TV may have quickened our ability to generate visual impressions. It doesn’t take much for us to conjure an image in our minds, and so less description is needed to conjure a human face. Elmore Leonard seldom relied on physical descriptions at all, believing instead that if he captured how a character talked, the visual representation could be capably left to the reader.
But physical description at its best is never just about the surface, and never has been. And if the novel is, as Julian Barnes contends, the one art form that best “captures the inner life – the soul, the heart, the mind,” does that mean we should just neglect the one part of the body that best reveals that interior landscape to the world?
A unique face artfully photographed can conjure layer upon layer of meaning and feeling. One of my distant relatives was the photographer Consuelo Kanaga. Edward Weston, who included one of her photographs in his Family of Man exhibit, remarked that she was almost bereft of technical skill, but no one better captured a human face. (If you want to see what he meant, type in her name at Google Images.)
I often turn to Consuelo’s photographs for inspiration for my characters, or to simply get into the right psychological and emotional space to describe someone well.
Because that’s the point: the photographs take me to a deeper place of understanding and awareness, often beyond words, that I must then attempt to conjure in words. And isn’t that the whole trick of describing people anyway?
Here’s a sample from my own just completed novel; this is a description of a former rodeo rider turned art forger named Tuck Mercer:
His face—deeply lined from the sun, gray-templed, with that chiseled roughness that speaks of the West—possessed the watchful patience of a man who’s earned each and every one of his forty-three years on this earth. And yet a wistful humor in the eyes provided the wary a reason to loosen their spines, unbuckle their shoulders, and return his smile.
If we go back to the nineteenth century—or even no further than the middle of the twentieth—we find numerous examples of exquisite skill in physical description in general and capturing faces in particular that speak not only of exterior appearance but inner character. Here are a few examples:
He had a hungry face; in it Marge detected a morphology she recognized. The bones were strong and the features spare but the lips were large and frequently in motion, twisting, pursed, compressing, being gnawed. Deprivation—of love, of mother’s milk, of calcium, God knows what. This one was sunburned, usually they were pale. They had cold eyes. They hated women. —Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers
His mouth was the very assertion of uncurbed passions and tyrannical self-will; the full lips thrust out and taut, like the flesh of animals distended by fear or desire. —Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Otto has a face like a very ripe peach. His hair is fair and thick, growing low on his forehead. He has small sparkling eyes, full of naughtiness, and a wide, disarming grin, which is much too innocent to be true. —Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin
Kennerly had gone astray somewhere: he had overdone it; he wore the harried air of a man on the edge of bankruptcy, keeping up an expensive establishment because he dared not retrench. His nerves were bundles of dried twigs, they jabbed his insides every time a thought stirred in his head, they kept his blank blue eyes fixed in a white stare. The muscles of his jaw jerked in continual helpless rage. —Katherine Anne Porter, “Hacienda”
He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age, with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. —Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
He was a big, hefty fellow, good-looking in a rather flashy, sunburnt way. He had the hot, blue eyes usually associated with heavy drinking and loose living. His hair was reddish like his skin. In a few years he would run to fat, his neck bulging over the neck of his collar. His mouth gave him away, it was too soft, too pink. —Daphne De Maurier, Rebecca
A more recent novel, Desmond Lowden’s Bellman and True (whose praises I’ve sung here before) has several such descriptions that I particularly love:
He was small, the back of his head was soft and rounded. But his face was pale, sharply pointed with the effort of being eleven years old.
She wore no make-up, she was strangely neutral, like a fashion model walking from one job to another, her face and hair in her handbag, and no expression for the journey in between.
The man was grey-haired. He had bacon and a suburban train-ride on his breath, and he caught the smell of whiskey on Hiller’s.
There are of course also examples of descriptions that, though purely physical, also convey something of the inner person, which is an art in and of itself. One such, from Joseph Conrad’s Victory:
He was a muscular, short man with eyes that gleamed and blinked, a harsh voice, and a round toneless, pock-marked face ornamented by a thin, disheveled moustache sticking out quaintly under the tip of a rigid nose.
I am not entirely sure why this aspect of writing has seemingly fallen into abeyance. Although I am aware of more contemporary examples, of course, I found many of them far more devoted to the surface, perhaps out of deference to Hemingway-esque objectivism. Or perhaps, as inheritors of a great tradition of photography and film, we’ve simply trained ourselves to infer the interior from what we can see.
I’m going to stop there and ask a few questions, hoping to stir some discussion:
Do you find that contemporary novels often seem to lack evocative physical descriptions? Why do you think that is?
If not, do you know of any contemporary novelists who do it well? Do they blend interior with exterior, or do they instead conjure depth by focusing purely on surfaces? (Either way, feel free to provide examples.)
Do you have a preference for descriptions that conjure the inner character from purely exterior effects (such as the Conrad example above)? Why? Give an example you find particularly insightful.
Do you have any examples of physical description from works you admire that you find particularly compelling?
Do you have any examples from your own work that you’d like to share?
Would you like to try giving a character from your current WIP a make-over, using some of the techniques suggested by the examples above?