Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Undescribed Characters - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Believe it or not, hair color isn't much of a character attribute! Shocking isn't it? Unless of course the hair color tells us something about the character, such as the fact that they don't bother to dye the gray out of their hair (which could mean that they're comfortable with aging, might or might not be attractive on them, or could just be slovenly) or if they dye their hair in oddball colors, such as bright pink or green.

The Secret of Red Gate Farm (Nancy Drew, Book 6)However in Nancy Drew mysteries, all we usually get in the way of description of characters other than the villains is hair color and cut, possibly eye color, and a vague idea of their relative comeliness and body shape. Sometimes, we also get a clue on how they dress.

In The Secret of Red Gate Farm, Nancy's friend George is described perhaps better than most of the characters:
...dark-haired George Fayne. Her boyish name fitted her build and straightforward, breezy manner.
Bess, George's cousin is described as "blonde, pretty" and "pleasantly-plump." Joanne Byrd, whom Nancy rescues in the story is described as "sweet-faced" and "frail."
In The Mystery at Lilac Inn Nancy herself is described as an "attractive titian blonde" and we're told that her blue eyes twinkle. Helen Corning is "slender, pretty." When they meet the folks at the Lilac Inn we're introduced to Emily Willoughby:
...a dainty young woman, had chestnut hair, set off to advantage by her white linen dress.
The Mystery at Lilac Inn (Nancy Drew, Book 4)While John McBride, Nancy's potential love-interest in the story is "a handsome, well-built man with wavy black hair."

Finally we get to meet Aunt Hazel:
White hair framed her face in soft waves, and she was impeccably groomed.
and Maud:
...a younger woman who had an angry look on her rather pretty but petulant face.
The fact that Aunt Hazel is impeccably groomed, may actually say something about her character, as might Maud's "petulant face." Whew! Finally we get some actual character description rather than just outward details.

Do we really care however, that Emily's hair is "set off to advantage" by her dress? All that tells us is either that she's pretty or that she's got a bit of style. Neither of these suggestions contribute to the plot or to what is essentially a flat character, designed only to offer Nancy a mystery and a setting for it.

Nancy's father, Carson Drew is invariably described in the series as "handsome" and sometimes "tall." Just as the villains' are telegraphed in the stories, the people who are not the villians are apparent by their lack of description.

However the crowning achievement of non-description in the Nancy Drew series has got to be Nancy's housekeeper and surrogate mother, Hannah Gruen, who is usually described as "pleasant-faced" or some facimile thereof.

That one I want to take a special look at. "Pleasant" along with "nice," "good," and "agreeable" to mention a few others, are some of the most namby-pamby words in the English language. Interestingly enough, one of the synonyms for "pleasant" is "bland." Pretty much the last thing I'd want my characters to be.

In the Nancy Drew stories, it's almost as if we're told people's hair colors just so that the author can write, "the blonde girl said" rather than "Bess said."
B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, No. 2)
To contrast, here is a character from B is for Burglar, a Kinsey Millhone Mystery by Sue Grafton:
The man appeared to be in his seventies, corpulent and benign. Old age had given him back his babyfat and the same look of grave curiosity.
And another one (conincidentally an overweight person as well) from The Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block:
One look at him, the way he held himself, the way he moved, and you somehow knew he'd been fat all his life, a fat baby who'd blossomed into a fat little boy, gone through the awkward years as a fat teenager, and emerged at last as a fat grownup.
The Burglar on the Prowland
No, he was fat all over, and I got the feeling it was fine with him.
Both of these descriptions not only give us a view of the outer person, but of the inner person as well.
I haven't yet finished reading B is for Burglar, so I don't know if Mr. Snyder is the murderer or not. I'm going to guess that he's not, but you never know. From that first glimpse of him, however he seems innocent as a child, telling us something about his inner nature, as well as his outer self.

The Burgular on the Prowl is on my shelf to read next. So I don't have the slightest idea who Block's character is or how he fits into the plot. The rest of the description goes on to say that he looks natty and prosperous, and that his teeth are:
...perfectly white and perfectly even, so much so that one could hardly avoid the suspicion that they were not perfectly real. But then you could have said much the same thing about his smile.
From this, I'm going to guess that this gentleman is someone who's going to give Bernie, Block's protagonist some trouble, whether he turns out to be the villain or not. The fact that the character is fine with being fat also tells us about a measure of his confidence. I wouldn't expect that this is someone easily disuaded from his plans.

So I'll hope that the moral of this article is apparent: When describing characters, give them actual CHARACTER, not mere labels. I'll probably write more in depth on this subject at a latter point.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

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