Adding “Script” to “Nondescript”

I just read a description of a character as “nondescript,” which made my hackles rise. “Nondescript” is a way of saying someone is so ordinary that no one would notice the character and be able to describe him later, but for an author to use the word “nondescript” is a cheat. As an author, you have the ability (and responsibility) to describe your characters, no matter how nondescript. As readers, we need a bit of “script” to put the character in mind. It doesn’t take much, perhaps something like, “there was nothing remarkable about the fellow — not his lusterless brown hair, his round face, or even his well-worn jeans.” See? A description!

The thing that made the non-description of this nondescript character so heinous was a later description of the character as wearing an ill-fitting wig. Huh? An ill-fitting wig is certainly a description, and takes a character out of the nondescript category.

eyeThere is no such thing as nondescript anyway. I was sitting here trying to imagine a character so bland as to truly be nondescript, but everything I could think of tended to be a “script.” Most people have moles, so the mention of a mole, while ordinary, would be a bit of description. Everyone has a nose — big, small, ski slope, well-proportioned, hooked, babyish — though generally we only remark on those that fall beyond what is considered “normal.” But still, the mention of a nose gives some description. And lips — size and color varies. Eyes vary also — size, spacing, color. (I always tell people I have eye-color eyes since the color doesn’t really exist anywhere that I have seen. I used to call my eyes gray, though they are more of a dark blue gray with a brownish halo around the iris than a true gray. Now I call them hazel, though generally, hazel is considered a greenish brown.)

But back to non-descript. Try to think of a description of a nondescript fellow, and I guarantee you will come up with a description that will make him unique. Admittedly, any description will give readers the idea that the particular body part mentioned was important, even if it’s not, such as the mention of a mole. As I said, most of us have moles, so there is no reason to mention them, and yet, there they are. (In grade school, one of the boys in my class used to count the moles on my face. So embarrassing! And yet, I was one of those mostly unnoticed children.)

Apparently, nondescript is a recurring issue with me because I found another blog post I wrote about the same topic: Describing the Nondescript. In that post, I confessed my own use of “nondescript” in my books, but I guarantee, I will never use the word again. I hope you can say the same.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

On Writing: Food

Sex and violence are visceral activites, but so is eating. Food is at once primitive and sophisticated, animalistic and human. We need to eat, but to a great extent we get to choose what we eat. And we get to choose for our characters. In fact, the characters of our characters lie in that choice. Are they vegan, omnivore, or something in between? Do they binge out or are they ascetic? When alone, do they take the time to cook a meal for themselves, or do they eat it standing over the sink? For me, a big question is what characters do with leftovers. Whenever characters in books throw away perfectly good food, I lose all sympathy for them and start rooting for the villains. Even in a world of abundance, food is precious. Or should be.

Wasted food gripes the heck out of me; I despise real and fictional food fights. Shows disrespect for life, a total lack of sensitivity, and people who never knew want. Another movie/book scene I absolutely hate is when a guy proposes to a woman by putting a ring in her drink, in a desert, or any other comestible. All I can think of is broken teeth when she bites into it or a punctured gut when she swallows it. Very romantic!

Besides describing character, food can be used as a theme, a plot point, a symbol. Food can be used to define the emotion of a scene or to delay the action and add suspense. Food helps create a setting in historical novels. The way a person eats tells a lot about character. You don’t need to describe food. Everyone knows what hamburger tastes like, or ice cream or jello. The whole ambience of food is much more important. I have one character who chews each mouthful of food exactly twenty-five times. His fiance finds herself counting his jaw movements, and by that you can tell that there relationship is doomed.

Just think of all the conflict attached to a family feast, such as a Thanksgiving dinner. The drama of several women competing to make their own favorite dressing, the trauma of a burnt pumpkin pie, the complication of children running underfoot, the conflicts of . . . You know the story. You’ve been there.
 
Movies and television shows are filled with great food scenes. The best Golden Girls shows were the ones where they sat at the kitchen table eating everything in sight, and talking about their lives. And who can forget the breakfast scene in My Stepmother Was an Alien, where she cooked up an entire menu. Or the breakfast scene in Uncle Buck when John Candy made pancakes as big as a table and used a snow shovel as a turner. All great food visuals, but also much going on beneath the scene.  

What role does food plays in your novels, in novels you have read, or in movies you have seen?

Fun food related websites:

The Food Time Line

History and Legends of Favorite Foods

History of Food and Food Products

Food History Resources

Food and Drink in Regency England

Medieval Recipes

Describing a Character the Easy Way

The tendency today is for authors to keep character descriptions in a novel short and focused by using brand names, and some books on writing recommend doing so. Obviously, a character who wears named designer suits or dresses is different from one who wears discount store clothing. And a character who eats a certain boxed cereal is different from one who eats plain old oatmeal. (Another recommendation is to describe characters by comparing them to celebrities, which, in a way, is the same thing — a celebrity is a name brand person.)

Most readers, perhaps, can more easily identify with a character who uses the same brands they do, and such descriptions give the book immediacy, but it seems to me like blatant advertising. Brand names have so encroached on our lives that we no longer realize we’ve become walking billboards. Even worse, we pay for the privilege of donating our personal space to the major corporations for free advertising.

But that doesn’t mean I have to embrace the trend in my writing. Sometimes there is no getting around a brand name. Saying a character put a Band-Aid on a cut has a completely different connotation than saying the character put a bandage on the cut. (For me, bandage summons a vision of gauze wrapped around an arm with the ends tied in a knot.) And I once used the phrase “Popsicle colors” to describe northern Wisconsin in the autumn. (If you’ve ever been there when the leaves are changing color, you will know how apt that description is.) Outside of that, I don’t think I’ve ever used brand names.

So, like writers of fantasy, science fiction and historical novels, I have to fall back on the old-fashioned way of describing and defining a character — by the colors they prefer, the style of clothing they wear and, most importantly, their actions. In the end, these descriptions are more enduring than brand names. Brand names, however entrenched, do become defunct, which would make our books passé, and us along with it. This perhaps defeats the purpose of writing. After all, don’t we all harbor the unrealistic dream of future generations reading our immortal works?

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