Michaeline: Description: Part Four

A young woman sits at her vanity mirror, but the overall image forms a skull

Some people hoot and holler at the old “hero in a mirror” trope, but if it reveals more than a pretty face, I think it’s a valid tool. Via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, I talked about how description in Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign helped center the readers in their own bodies. I think using real, visceral reactions to food and clothing helped set up the readers to feel the descriptions of romance even more strongly.

I return again this week to Bujold’s 13th book in the Vorkosigan series to talk about how a description can orient both the new reader and the long-time fan to the new book.

This is often a problem in series: the old fan wants more and now, with just a few reminders. I think a lot of new readers also only want a few reminders of the setting and characters – they are eager to meet these new people and find out what they are going to do. But the new readers do need a handshake.

On about page three (sample chapters from Baen Publishing), we find this detailed description of Miles, who is going to visit Ekaterin for the first time on his home planet of Barrayar:

“Miles glanced anxiously down the all-too-short length of his body. If his dwarfish stature bothered her, she’d shown no signs of it so far. Well and good. Going on to the aspects of his appearance he could control: no food stains spattered his plain gray tunic, no unfortunate street detritus clung to the soles of his polished half-boots. He checked his distorted reflection in the groundcar’s rear canopy. Its convex mirroring widened his lean, if slightly hunched, body to something resembling his obese clone-brother Mark, a comparison he primly ignored. Mark was, thank God, not here. He essayed a smile, for practice; in the canopy, it came out twisted and repellent. No dark hair sticking out in odd directions, anyway.”

Note, it’s important for the new reader to know what’s really outstanding about a character as soon as possible. It’s possible for me as a reader to change eye-color or hair color a few chapters in (not pleasant, but possible), or add a little pot-belly or a really nice bicep. What’s not really cool is to be imagining a tall, handsome, blond hero, and to have the writer reveal in Chapter Seven that he’s really a pleasant-looking dwarf brunette.

Here, Bujold has Miles nervously checking himself out in the shiny car canopy, which does the double-duty of giving the reader the most important clues about his appearance, and also gives some insight about his state of mind before meeting the woman he’s in love with after a long absence.

It’s also a nice, subtle infodump about Mark, Miles’ clone who has social and body issues. Mark is extremely important in this book, and there is so much information that needs to be conveyed about him. To give you the short list, he was cloned and raised by terrorists, tried to kill Miles in a previous book, killed his progenitor instead, is out to take down an evil planet that kills clones, had to murder a guy from said planet who kidnapped him by mistake, was tortured during that kidnapping and had his personality split into several personalities, and gained a lot of weight so people wouldn’t mistake him for Miles (avoiding kidnapping again, among other nasty things). For the long list, please see the book – Bujold weaves in all this backstory as you need it.

For the old fan, it’s a nice case of, “Oh, Mark’s coming back! Yay!” For the new reader, it’s a tiny springboard to launch the reader into a very complex character.

Another thing this description does is something like what writer (and fellow fan) Jo Walton calls a “spearpoint.” Walton says in her Tor blogpost:

“Briefly, a spearpoint is a tiny sharp point that needs a whole long spear behind to make it go in. Similarly the weight of significance of things in fiction sometimes need long buildups to make them get proper impact.”

For the new reader, this little scene of Miles checking to make sure his fly is zipped is a little moment, and one that probably flies by fast. But for the long-time fan . . . well, we knew his parents before he was born, we saw him in the womb and as a child, we’ve followed him through his twenties through adventure and heartache and dishonor and new honor. Yet here he is, still checking his shoes for gum, worried that he will not be enough for the most important woman in his life. Oh, Miles, sweetie, you are good enough.

His armsman Pym echoes the long-time fan’s empathy.

“‘You look just fine, my lord,’ Pym said in a bracing tone from the front compartment. Miles’s face heated, and he flinched away from his reflection. He recovered himself enough to take the flower arrangement and rolled-up flimsy Pym handed out to him with, he hoped, a tolerably bland expression. He balanced the load in his arms, turned to face the front steps, and took a deep breath.”

And on to our normal Miles mode, forward momentum.

The right kind of description is going to do so much more than just describe a scene. It will evoke reactions and ripples from readers both old and new to the story.

(BTW, remember last week when I said Lois had talked about her upcoming novella in the World of Five Gods universe? Well, it’s up on Amazon! (And maybe other places by now.) And it’s wonderful! It’s a stand-alone short story, and you are probably going to be left wanting more. But, it’s a long short story, and it’s very satisfying within those parameters. She posted a sample of “Penric’s Demon” on her Goodreads blog, here.)

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Description: Part Four

  1. Giving enough description to orient new readers without annoying existing ones with repetition is a major challenge. I read a lot of series, and usually I find myself skipping over chunks of recap. I learned a lot from your Miles-in-the-mirror quote, Micki. Thanks 😉

    The best thing about it is that Ms. Bujold uses the reflection trope in a very smart way – showing us Miles’s personality and state of mind via some useful observations about his appearance. You feel his nerves, but you also see him as he sees himself, and since none of us is objective about that, it reminds existing readers what kind of man he is, and gives new readers the opportunity to measure this later against other characters’ observations. So it’s a three-in-one: gives essential information about Miles’ appearance, gives new readers clues about his character while allowing long-standing fans to empathise, and as a bonus introduces his clone-brother. And not a word of it is writing that a longtime fan would skip. That’s class 😉

    • You know, there are so many things that we are told, as newbies, to avoid utterly and completely. But in the right hands, it works. I think the main reason that people snort at the reflection trope is because the writer uses it just one way, and to convey boring details.

      Come to think of it, I’m re-reading Jenny’s “Faking It” right now, and the evil woman, Clea Lewis, also spends a lot of time in front of a mirror. But there, I’m getting a definite “Snow White’s Mother” vibe — what we see in the mirror, and the thoughts that go through her head are so much at odds. Nothing is what it seems in that book, and the mirror scene reinforces the theme as well as gives us a good look at the beautiful but insecure and greedy Clea.

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