Writing Q&A Number 9

Question 9
From Natalya:

I have a book concept I am working on, and it involves a race of non-human characters. They basically look like a kind of hybrid between birds and people. The story is set entirely in the realm this race lives in, so there are no humans.

My question is, how do I go about describing these beings? Since their looks are fairly different and important, I want to work it in naturally, but because this group of beings live among others that look very similar to themselves, I feel it wouldn’t even make much sense to give a full description. However, I still want it to be clear to readers what these beings look like, so that readers are not confused.
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Natalya,

That is a tough question. Since the characters are familiar with their own looks, they wouldn’t say to each other, “Hey, you have wings! So do I!” You can, however, sprinkle in tidbits of descriptions here and there by mentioning flight with wings or whatever else they might do. Even then, readers will have a tough time painting a full picture early on.

In a case like this, I think two options might help. First, you can show a couple of different kinds of creatures on your cover and/or an interior illustration. Second, you can include a description section before the story begins, just a quick list of the most important creatures and what they look like. Once these characteristics are established by an illustration or by a glossary-type entry, you can write the story in a natural way without worrying about detailed descriptions.

If anyone has any ideas, please comment.

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4 replies

  1. I’ve been struggling with this for a while, so here are a few things that have been on mind when it comes to this subject.

    With something so unusual, many people may not realize what a thing/character looks like no matter how it is described. It’s good to have cover illustrations that feature these characters, like Mr. Davis said, but for stories where that doesn’t work out, you may have to deal with people not interpreting the characters entirely right. Try to provide color illustrations of the characters on your website, or in the book, as Mr. Davis said.

    Still, regardless of all that, readers can sometimes take a while to catch on to your vision of what a certain character is(especially if you can’t provide an illustration), and that’s ok. In the Wings of Fire series by Tui T Sutherland, there are creatures called Scavengers. For the longest time, I imagined them as small, fluffy, raptor like creatures, until way into the first few books I finally realized that the Scavengers were actually humans. Other people seem to have had a similar experience, and they still love the books. In fact, I think I’ve seen one or two people find delight in not realizing the Scavengers were human at first.

    You may see if you can have your characters be encountered by a stranger or member of another species early on. If you can tell a scene from the eyes of a stranger or member of another species, you would have a chance to describe your characters naturally.

    Or maybe you can have a character compare themselves to someone else. If they encounter a member of another species, or observe one of their pets or something, a few thoughts can reflect on why they are better suited to their environment than another species or something. Don’t info dump with this, try to just use one or two sentences that they would naturally think. Focus on what’s most important. Find a way to indicate the key features like what their eyes and mouths look like, how many legs they walk on, and if they fly. Other than that, the other details are not nearly so important, and probably won’t confuse anyone if they’re introduced slowly.

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  2. One thing I forgot to mention is that I know growing up I tended to skip the glossaries and other descriptive things in the front and back of books. I think they’re good to have, but I know pages and pages of that are a turn off to some readers. You may not want to rely on that completely, since many readers will either skip or be turned off by having to look so much at the glossary in order to understand a story.

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  3. Thank you Autumn and Mr Davis! Those are really good ideas. I think I’ll try to include some artwork somehow for sure, probably on the cover. I like the idea with the pets thing too!

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  4. I’ve run into a similar issue. I have a story told from the POV of an alien in first person, and the alien has never been to Earth, so they’d describe a dog as looking a bit like a kark, but with a shorter tail. (They would also go into great detail about the dog since it would be strange to them.)
    I’m bad at descriptions, and in this case, it’s really hard to get things right. One thing I’ve found to do is describe smaller details that are different from person to person. Does one character have a longer beak than usual? By describing that beak, you show that everyone has beaks. Same goes for feathers, claws, or whatnot. The biggest problem is showing huge anatomical things.
    Another trick is by using action. For example, I start my story with the character digging, then brushing dust off her fur and clothes, which allows me to show the readers she’s got claws, clothes, and fur. Getting them in combat early on would be useful too, because if the characters are going to be fighting, the reader needs to know early on what sort of weapons are at their disposal.

    Putting an illustration on your website, in your book, or on the cover would be the best option, if you can do it.

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