Reading Like a Writer: The Turner House and Physical Description
Angela Flournoy's novel, The Turner House, follows a large family in Detroit as the thirteen middle-aged siblings try to save the house in which they grew up. The Turners also face ghosts—both real and metaphorical.
There's a large cast of characters and the third-person narration shifts alignment between them, but Flournoy is careful not to let us mix them up. A technique she sometimes uses, one that helps me as a reader, is physical description. Once I can see the characters, I'm less apt to confuse them.
Yet physical description is tough to pull off. It feels old-fashioned. Older books often used physical description to indicate personality, but modern readers resist this notion. We see past appearances, we think. We know that "kind" is not the same as "beautiful." But we delude ourselves. Much as we'd like to be beyond judging people by their appearance, we do.
Whether or not personality is naturally reflected in physicality, it can grow to be. Expecting certain behavior often engenders it or at least inspires a reaction to it. And how one character describes another, what type of appearance attracts and repulses, is certainly revelatory of the POV character.
For these reasons, physical description works best for me when it's also about something else. Flournoy makes the most of her physical description and justifies it to the modern (possibly snooty) reader by careful placement and by making sure it does more than just the one thing of saying what a person looks like.
Troy is the youngest son of the Turners. He's also a police officer, and the following sentence is aligned with his thoughts.
When he'd first joined the police force he realized he was just a little too light-skinned, too young-looking—too pretty, really—to pull off being the bad cop, especially next to Higgins.
Here, we gain an image of Troy. We learn that he is light-skinned and young-looking. We envision him as "pretty."
We also learn that he thinks he is "too pretty" and we discover how his image of himself affects his job and the persona he takes on for that job.
I'm especially interested in the moment that we get this line. It's carefully placed within a scene when Troy is on duty, responding to a call with his partner. The fact that he explains his role as "good cop" reveals that he feels the need to justify it, that it's not natural to him, and so we understand the ambivalence he feels about his career. We learn not only how Troy looks and acts, but the complicated relationship that one has to the other.
Something different, but also significant, happens when Troy thinks about the appearance of Jillian, his girlfriend.
She had the sort of even complexion—medium brown with orange undertones—that, coupled with her athletic frame, suggested continuity, an unwillingness to mottle or sag.
In this instance, we're getting Troy's perspective rather than how Jillian sees herself. The word "suggested" is key. He's not claiming as fact that her complexion and figure determine her personality, just letting us know what they imply to him. This reinforces the idea that appearance is always mixed up with perception, that it's not hard evidence of personality but related to it.
Of course, the description tells us what Jillian looks like, gives her a body and a presence and puts a picture in our heads. Her complexion and frame aren’t mere suggestions, but plainly stated. The ability to see her helps make her real to the reader.
The description also tells us about Troy's mood in that moment. It reflects his state of mind and gives the reader a sense of what is to come.
The description occurs mid-scene at a time when Troy and Jillian seem to be getting along. In a previous scene, Jillian has rejected Troy's idea for saving his mother's house, yet we know that Troy has pursued the plan behind her back. We don't know, however, if he's ready to tell her.
But the subtext of his description warns us that he is about to. His opinion that she looks "continuous" and "unwilling to mottle or sag" reveals that he's afraid she'll be stubborn. The phrase "athletic frame" suggests strength. So this description of Jillian is also about the scene that is about to unfold. Because he sees Jillian as strong and resolute, we can guess his fear—that he won't be able to change her mind.
Placement is key in both of these examples. If the descriptions weren't positioned within specific scenes, but as initial introductions to the characters, they'd have an entirely different effect. They might be useful in keeping the assorted characters straight, but they couldn't be as complex or dynamic. Like real people do, these descriptions adjust to changes in mood and circumstance.
A smart book like The Turner House recognizes that modern readers are not beyond learning from physical description—far from it. Appearance influences the way characters act, the way they see other people, and the way they respond to how others see them. Perception of it is even affected by the situation.
Allison Wyss is teaching these upcoming classes at the Loft: Reading Like a Writer; How'd They Do That: A Craft Based Book Club for Writers; Eight Weeks, Eight Drafts; and Beyond Point of View: The Art of Perspective. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.