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How can I describe an unconventionally part-humanoid character, so the reader knows clearly what they look like, while in a world where these people are normal and it's not unusual at all for characters to see (or be) such a person?

The character/species I'm having trouble with are my winged people, and to give you an idea what I'm dealing with, here's a rough sketch: Their bodies look generally human and they have huge feathered wings connected to their shoulder blades and a feathered tail. They walk kinda differently from humans though, and their neck is longer and farther forward (for flight). They have huge chest and upper back muscles to be able to fly. They average 5'11"-6'1" (measurements in feet/inches).

I'm asking this because I've written excerpts with such a character in it for an online writing course and my peers have seen this character as many things from a monster to an animal with thoughts. That is not what he is.

I know that characters shouldn't be defined by their physical characteristics. They should be defined by their personality, mental characteristics, motivation, etc. A good way to do that seems to be not to focus too much on the physical characteristics and just bring it up when it can be smoothly slipped in. This seems hard to do in this instance because I have to make it very clear what this character looks like so that he is not misunderstood.

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    Are they part human or are they humanoid? There's a big difference. In the former case, they are children of mixed marriages (or descendants of this admixture). In the latter case, they are not different from anyone else and there are no humans on their planet (or none that are part of their genetics). – Cyn Feb 18 at 19:38
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    put an illustration on the cover? – Nacht Feb 18 at 20:32
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    "That is not what he is." Besides bruising your ego (which I'll admit can be an important factor), is there something about the story itself that requires that the reader pictures this species in the same way you do? Or are the readers getting the wrong idea about how this species looks, but still enjoying the story? – a CVn Feb 18 at 20:55
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    Two recent reads that did this well IMO: (1) The Cloud Roads (the first Raksura book), (2) the Imp series (starts with A Demon Bound). – Monica Cellio Feb 18 at 22:12
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    @aCVn There are many web cartoonists who are very good and will do custom artwork for people for nominal fees. – Ed Grimm Feb 19 at 0:19
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If you were describing a human being, you wouldn't say "she had two arms, each the same length and ending just below her hips." That description is assumed for everyone (if it's wrong for an individual, we expect the author to point it out).

But her arms could still be strong, muscular, tanned, scarred, pale, freckled, hairless, or carrying something. By saying those things, the reader will know you mean to say normal arms, just ones particular to this character.

Do the same with your winged people. How are their wings different from other people's. What are the characteristics of wings that people admire or find attractive? Are there things that people take to mean something about the person's character? Unkempt feathers (appear to) mean laziness or dying the tips blue means a particular political stance?

Or other things that tell you something about the person? Are the feathers of youth a bit more downy? If someone is elderly, do the feathers droop at all or maybe the tail is more bent?

Use these tells as you describe your characters. State it as if you would describe a human's hair (you wouldn't tell the reader that humans typically have hair). Every culture picks out features and assigns them meaning.

Also show your people using their bodies, just like you might show a human taking a deep breath before starting to climb a long staircase, then pausing periodically and pausing more often, with a bit of panting, near the top.

How do they move from one place to another? How do they carry things? Do they have backpacks? Or would they be chest packs? Be matter of fact while still letting the reader know what your people look like.

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    Showing them using their bodies is a really good tip. Even in an extreme case where you really want to describe their anatomy, simply have a scene where looking at bodies is commonplace (sports event, medical examination, biology class, ...). Your detailed descriptions won't feel out of place and will instead come across as painting the picture of the scene. Just for comparison's sake, imagine the same detailed description when the MC is on a first date with someone. This completely changes the context of describing someone's anatomy in detail. – Flater Feb 19 at 9:34
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    "What are the characteristics of wings that people admire or find attractive?" - or find ugly, awkward or unsettling. It does not have to be all positive. – Mołot Feb 19 at 10:41
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    @Mołot My intention was to include that but perhaps I didn't state it directly enough. – Cyn Feb 19 at 15:20
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This may just be my style of reading, but whenever possible, I do prefer a straight break-the-fourth-wall description of the character's physical attributes if they are relevant, and for that to happen as soon as possible.

I disagree with the idea of slowly introducing your character's traits when they become relevant because that will cause mental dissonance, at least for me.

Imagination doesn’t work by bits; I can’t have a half-complete character on my mind. I will create a mental image the first time you quote it with the information provided. If something is not there, my mind will fill up the gaps however it sees fit.

Later on, if you add additional information that is consistent with my perceived image then I will incorporate it; otherwise I’ll just ignore it. If I can’t ignore the new information and I can’t incorporate it without contradiction, I will like the character and the story less. I don’t like my vision of the character to be changed after 3 chapters... I’ve already developed a bond with the guy and I don’t want to discover all of the sudden he doesn’t really exist and I need to bond with another character.

To me, and that’s personal, consistency is not as important as empathy from the reader, and your reader (at least for the moment) is always going to be human.

PS: as a note, your description did not produce the outcomes you described. I imagined essentially angels with tails, tall angels. Definitively not monsters or animals. I think the bit that produced that was “winged people”.

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    Yeah, this tends to be how I read too. I just want to stay way from giving all the description at once in a block of text. – Nadeshka Feb 18 at 21:08
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    Also, I got the "incorrect reactions" by trying to give important bits when it became relevant. It's harder when you're talking from the third person POV the winged character because they're used to being in their body like were used to being in ours. – Nadeshka Feb 18 at 21:12
  • This isn't necessarily counter to to Cyn's answer, the 4th wall break is one way to do it, but to me the key output from this is to ensure that the description is formed quickly - you can still do this with a description consistent with in-world descriptions, but do it over a short space of time. – Baldrickk Feb 20 at 10:29
  • Have to agree here, if you want their variations to seem "normal", you should introduce them as soon as possible and explain clearly that all of society is like this. Otherwise you'll end up surprising/confusing the reader each time one is introduced or make them feel like they've missed something. Also, they won't get that it's the norm in this society. – colmde Feb 20 at 13:19
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Because these features are so common in their world it would mean that eventually the characters' actions or thoughts would touch on these features a little at a time. So give your readers the details of the features a little at a time as it becomes relevant. (i.e. Jan loped through the crowd so recklessly that she had to use her tail to keep her balance more than once. Her wings she kept tucked close to her body -they would see her if she took to the sky.)

There are various ways to sneak the features in, but make sure they are only added when it makes sense for the character to acknowledge that feature. We humans notice different features on each other or ourselves when we are comparing things, or something stands out to us.

  • Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to do but I tend not to have time within the space of the (rather short) projects to slip it in and still achieve a coherent picture of the figure. It also depends what the character is conscious of, if I can slip it in. – Nadeshka Feb 18 at 18:58
6

If you are writing third person, you can always just provide a brief description up front if you really feel you need one. Otherwise, you'll need to find reasons for your POV character to notice these characteristics. The key is to integrate them into details that would be meaningful to the character. "He wore an ill-fitting shirt that was clearly designed for a human, with crudely cut slits for his wings." "His underdeveloped pecs were barely more muscled than a puny human's would have been."

You should also ask yourself "Why is it important that the reader know what this character looks like?" The answer will give you the clues in how to present it.

One possibility you should consider is that it doesn't actually matter to the reader. If you're telling a strong story, and people respond well to it, you might not need them all to be visualizing the same thing as you for the story to be a success. On the other hand, if the character's physical characteristics play an actual part in the story, you can detail those when they actually come into play.

1

Use events in your story to provide excuses for describing their look:

Naide stretched her neck. Her powerful shoulders were still aching from the long flight. In truth, she could handle twice the distance, but the cold gusts of the morning air, caressing her long graceful neck, had managed to stiffen the muscles in her back. Now she had to pay the price of her early flight.


Add customary actions in your world that would require a description of their look:

Naide looked at herself in the polished silver mirror. She wished she could be as beautiful as Deisha, who glided with her slender neck adorned of copper rings, and her wings spreading like white clouds. Both were but in the prime of their youth, with round faces crowned by a long stream of dark tresses, and plump red lips which had yet to learn to kiss. She placed the golden ring on her finger and looked at it. It was a normal ring, which her mother wore on her pinkie, yet, as thin as she was, it fit just her thumb of all her five fingers.


Add comparisons that refer to our world, without overdoing so:

example:

The two byrdies did not waited long. With a terrible shriek, Naide hurled herself at Deisha. It was a battle of ancient warriors, a knuckle fight of boxers from times past. It was a dance, with their slender legs moving together, and their clenched fists darting across the dust.

example:

Naide jumped at Deisha with hands that could have been claws, but were thin and delicate like those of a harp-player, too gentle to do any harm.


Add dialogue remarks, but use them sparingly:

«Naide!» Screamed Deisha «It is you, isn't it? I would recognize that walk of your amidst a crowd. No one else balances between the legs as if they had no wings like you do. I still don't get it how you manage not to trip on your feet.»


Add scenes where it is necessary to have that particular detail of the body shape

example:

Deisha was lying on the ground. Half of her left wings had been torn by the gro-lion, leaving but two feet of mauled and bleeding feathers still attached to her shoulder-blades. She would never be able to fly again. Others in her condition had entirely given up what remained of their wings, and lived a life of shame, walking with their backs straight, and their necks curved forward.

example:

Naide gently lifted Deisha from the dirt. The woman was not a giant, barely six feet tall, with a large chest, and yet Naide felt her legs shaking under Deisha's weight.

example:

«My knee is hurting, and my elbow is bruised.» said Deisha after the fall.

example:

At the exam Naide was asked how many bones are there in the neck. Six, she knew that. Six vertebras, and thirty more from the shoulders down. She knew it just as well as she knew that she had five fingers on each hand.


Finally, just don't. Let your readers imagine what suits them best. Afterall, it is your story, but it is their imagination.

1

One element is if you characters have a reason to notice these things. In Ward, the protagonist is a bit of a Fashion Police, so she's always commenting on what people are wearing, whether regular people clothes or a super hero/villain costume. Because it's a character trait that makes sense for her (was popular in high school, she loves to try to classify everything), it never feels like an info dump.

So if one of your characters is a flight instructor or physical trainer, they'd probably always be noticing something about the wings of other characters or other elements (like a contrast between short legs that have a small limp, yet impressive shoulders and gliding, or noting that Bob is exactly as thick-headed as you'd expect a guy with chartreuse feathers to be.)

Prewriting thought: I'd like to know what's considered GORGEOUS in your world, both in a fashion/aspirational-but-unrealistic way, an Olympic medalist (performance-focused, but different sports lead to different physiques), and just cute friend of a friend. Also the opposite. And the stereotypes associated with different characteristics. Your people don't have to consciously believe them, but they may influence how they describe someone else, using flattering or unflattering terms. Did his eyebrows indicate someone manipulative or persuasive?

Iceberg that! Your characters don't need to go around talking about gorgeousness or athleticism, but knowing what makes LLyrrra "cute" or "just ok" helps you describe them in the story.

(Example: I think just about ALL cats/kittens are adorable, but they're not my people. But my cats probably have strong reactions about each other's fur color, nose shape, walking style, etc.)

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If your story is told from some other perspective than 1st/close 3rd, you could just describe the species, but if it must be from the perspective of a specific character think about what they would think of the species and how they would see it.

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I'm no writer, but I do love stories with aliens - the weirder the better.

I recommend checking out Vernor Vinge, (starting with "A Fire Upon the Deep") if you haven't already. His work has many truly strange creatures, presented with incredible skill. One is a species of dog-like beings that individually are mostly animalistic. But together they form sentient people, each of which is a "pack" of about 3 to 6 "members".

David Brin's Uplift War series is another source of great writing about bizarre species with unique physical and social attributes.

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    Your resource recommendations might be helpful, but your answer would be significantly improved if you could explain within your answer how the effect the OP is looking for is achieved within the sources you refer to. Our goal is to have answers that are self-contained, rather than answers that tell people where to look. Take a look at our How to Answer page, it explains things better than I can in this comment. – Galastel Feb 19 at 22:14
  • @Galastel This is a fair complaint. Unfortunately, I don't really know how Vinge and Brin achieve the effect - only that they succeed. I'm a reader, not a writer, and happened across this in the sidebar of another site. Perhaps my thoughts would be better as a comment than an answer - they just seemed a bit long for that. – solublefish Feb 20 at 1:52

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