Jan 13th, 2022

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

by Synne Lindén

Building characters is essential to good writing. Whether you’re working on creative pieces or a business blog post, the individuals featured in your stories bring them to life. They are a natural and inevitable point of connectivity for the reader, and can elicit a whole range of different emotions. When you use characterisation mindfully in business writing, this means you can get your message across in an elevated way.

There are few things as in our face as what we see. When we meet people, our eyes pick up a vastness of information, which we then process depending on our beliefs, values and preconceptions. Because of this, appearance is where the potential for some of your best storytelling work lies. 

What defines character appearance in writing?

First off, it’s important to remember that appearance isn’t just what we see. In every interaction we have, all our other senses are playing an important role, too. Someone who shouts out their arguments is someone very different to the person who mutters them. The language they use, their pacing, the space their voice takes up in a room are all sub-components of who someone is in their dialogue.

Similarly, our noses and hands pick up on clues of appearance, too. Have you ever noticed how much impact a certain perfume can have on an interaction you have with someone? Whether it’s revolting or intoxicating, smell forms part of identity - and so influences the way we interpret and think of a person. It may not be common for you to touch someone in a professional environment. Still, hand shakes, choices of clothing, and shoe fabrics (things we might feel, or imagine how might feel, with our hands) also have an effect.

All of these components are part of someone’s appearance. They’re little details - or big ones - that you can use consciously to add to an individual’s depth. In creative writing, show, don’t tell is such an important concept, and so many writers avoid the characterisation tool of appearance too much. In fact, the way someone is perceived through smell, hearing, sight and touch is just another way of showing them for who they are.

Striking the right appearance balance

Having this said, you can definitely go too far with appearance, too. It’s a tool that should be used only when it serves the intention of your piece of writing. In other words: It’s most effective when it adds to the message of what you’re trying to convey. All writing is storytelling; bringing the reader along on a journey. Appearance, like other tools you use in your writing, needs to add to the flow, composition and purpose of your writing.

Imagine you’re walking down a business street, where everyone is dressed in grey, black or navy blue suits (and you are too). The entire landscape is subtle, and perhaps even a little bleak. Now, look up, and see the man in a striking beige, linen two-piece with a bright purple shirt across his chest. He’s not necessarily out of place, but the outfit he’s chosen is enough to make you stop and reflect. 

This is where details on appearance do their best part. The reader doesn’t need to know that the man above is tall, that he has brown hair and that he’s got blue eyes - these don’t matter in the message you’re communicating. The point is that he is different. So give the reader context, and then show them that difference.

You also need to be mindful of the length of detail. No one wants to read a bland, CV-like description of someone before they can get to know them. How do you perceive people in real life? How long does it take you to form assumptions and opinions about them? Think about the things you pay attention to, and whether these tend to confirm or disprove your preconceptions about someone.

Appearance as a tool in business writing

The way we look at work is essential. Professional dress codes are also undergoing an immense shift worldwide. This makes the appearance tool more fun to play with for all business writers, since there is more depth and diversity to what we see in professional contexts. Position this right, and your stories will jump off the page, with individuals the reader feels are standing right in front of them.

You can use appearance in pretty much any piece of professional writing you create, granted there is a story in there somewhere. These get your audience considerably more invested in what you’re saying to them, so if you can share an anecdote that supports your message, you should. And in sharing your anecdotes, remember the individuals that hold them up.

Sometimes, the stories that stick with us are from moments of solitude and reflection. Mostly, though, our memories feature other people. When the appearance of these people - whether that be in the way they spoke or the way they dressed - matters to the story, it makes sense to include these details. They can make the difference between a story forgotten and a story remembered.

Here’s a list of questions to help you decide on which details of appearance to include in your next piece of business content:

  • Does this detail make the person I’m portraying clearer to the reader? More vivid?

  • Was there something about the person I can relate directly back to the messaging of my piece? (If your theme is being different, and you have an anecdote of someone dressing differently to make a point, include details on their outfit)

  • Does this detail hold the power to elicit emotion? Understanding? Or am I just describing for description’s sake?

  • Have I included more than just what I could see? Was there something about the person’s voice or way of speaking that made me pay more attention to them?

By adding in droplets of detail about someone’s appearance, your stories gain a new dimension. You let your readers in behind the scenes, and so create a point of connection for them with your writing.

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