Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most trustworthy one of all?

For the last couple of days, I have been yammering on about the dangers of including too much physical description of your characters and/or backstory in your interview scenes, particularly in ones near the opening of the book. (If you have not given a physical description of your protagonist or some insight into her primary relationships by page 182, the manuscript has a different issue.) Within this context, I asserted – perhaps rashly – that conversation where Person A describes Person B’s physical attributes TO Person B are relatively rare.

It hit me in the wee hours, however, that I had neglected to mention the primary real-life situation where speakers ROUTINELY engage in this sort of banter: people in the first throes of being in love. Especially if one or both are in love for the first time, their vocal cords are likely to emit some otherwise pretty unlikely dialogue. As in:

*** “Wow, your eyes are SO blue, Snuggums!” (Giggle.)

“Your nose is adorable, Muffin. I love that little freckle right there especially.” (Smack.)

“Who’s a little snuggle bunny? Is it you? Is it?” ***

I have nothing against love, in principle — truly, I don’t. It has produced some fairly spectacular poetry, and most of the human race. But allow me to suggest that this particular species of conversation, even when spoken live, is properly only interesting to Snuggums and Muffin themselves. Such entirely self-referential dialogue becomes intensely boring to any third-party listener with a rapidity that makes the average roller coaster ride seem languid by comparison.

Don’t believe me? Tag along on a date with two people (or heck, three or four) deep in the grip of the early stages of infatuation with each other, before the quotidian problems of which way to hang the toilet paper roll and not being able to sleep for more than five consecutive minutes before being awakened by a snore that would put Godzilla to shame have reared their ugly heads.

I doubt the conversation will be scintillating.

It can be equally deadly in print — but naturally, as writers, when we write about the enamored, we want to capture that breathless feeling of discovery inherent in infatuation. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s done well. Yet in print, rhapsodies on eyes of blue all too often produce prose of purple:

***”Tiffany, your eyes are the most astonishing color, blue like Lake Tahoe on a cloudless day. Not a cloudless day in midwinter, mind you, when you might drive by the lake on your way to a ski slope, but the blue of midsummer, of long, dreamy days on Grandfather’s boat. Or still later, when you and I were in junior high school, and our parents shipped us off to that Episcopalian summer camp — the one that used the 1929 prayer book, not the modern edition – when we swam beneath skies of azure…” ***

You’d have to be Charles Boyer to pull of a speech like this in real life without prompting gales of laughter in Tiffany and bystander alike. Generally speaking, extensive physical descriptions like this work far, far better in narration than as dialogue.

Most people already have some fair idea what they look like: while it’s always nice to be told that one is pretty, one seldom needs to be told that one is 5’6”, even if that is indeed the case. In fact, mentioning it in real life might actually engender some resentment. Height and weight are the two self-descriptors about which the average person is most likely to –

Well, let’s be generous and not call it lying; how about equivocating?

I find this kind of misrepresentation fascinating, as it so seldom fools anyone. Most people would never dream of perjuring themselves about their eye color on a driver’s license application – but don’t most people subtract a few pounds, or perhaps 30 or 40, on general principle, on the same form? Aren’t personal ads living proof that many people are, at best, rather optimistic about their height? Don’t we all get at least a vague sense that the average movie star’s date of birth is somewhat variable, when she admitted to being five years older than we are when her first movie came out, and yet asserts that she is three years younger now?

Can’t we all live with that? I mean, River Phoenix’s four years at nineteen were good years for all of us, weren’t they?

Ethically, I don’t have much of a problem with these harmless little pieces of self-aggrandizement; for the most part, they’re victimless crimes. (“That’s he, officer – he says he’s six feet tall, but he’s 5’9″ in his stocking feet!”) In fact, being aware of this tendency can add a certain piquancy to an interview scene.

Love scenes in particular. I hate to seem cynical, but is it entirely beyond the bounds of probability the Charles Boyer-wannabe above might have slightly exaggerated the blueness of Tiffany’s eyes?

In other words, what if instead of depicting your infatuated lovers commenting upon the REAL physical attributes of one another, the dialogue made it plain that a certain amount of hyperbole was going on? Or if one professed blindness to a physical defect in the other?

Such scene might not provide just-the-facts-ma’am physical descriptions of the characters, but it might conceivably be more character-revealing – and more interesting to the reader – than the transcripts of either sweet nothings or undiluted praise.

Actually, in any interview scene, it’s worth giving some serious thought to having the information-imparter lie, distort, or soften the facts he’s conveying. If the protagonist has to guess what is and is not true, the scene automatically becomes more dynamic than if she’s just nodding and saying, “Oh, that must be so hard for you” or “What do you mean, Uncle George has left me his sheep ranch in Bolivia?”

And after all, logically speaking, in scenes where the protagonist is extracting information from a stranger, why SHOULD the imparter tell the absolute and complete truth? Would you tell your deepest, darkest secret to a complete stranger who showed up on YOUR doorstep demanding answers?

I ask this rhetorically, coming from a family where total strangers regularly show up on our respective doorsteps and demand answers about what a certain well-known deceased writer was REALLY like.

But even among those not used to being trapped into impromptu interviews, I would suspect that compulsive truth-telling to strangers is not the norm. People have been known to equivocate a bit when someone they’ve never seen before abruptly appears and demands to be told intimate life details. Even very nice people.

I know; shocking.

But such a possibility amazingly seldom seems to trouble the daydreams of your garden-variety protagonist. A good 90%, interviewers in novel submissions just accept that they are being told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Yet in an interview scene – again, especially one that opens a book — certainty is almost always less interesting than doubt, just as reading about complete amity is less gripping than interpersonal friction. And in the real world, complete understanding, let alone agreement, between two people is rare enough that I think it should be regarded as remarkable.

There’s a reason that most professional readers will advise against writing much in the first person plural, after all, the success of the Greek chorus narration in Jeffrey Eugenides’ THE VIRGIN SUICIDES aside. Let your characters disagree; let them quibble.

And let them lie to one another occasionally. Both your plot and your characters will thank you for allowing them to be more complex.

Keep up the good work!

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