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Writer’s Den: Describing the Indescribable

Hoglers don’t exist. You’ve never heard of them, and I’ve certainly never heard of them. As an object of the imagination, they defy description. This is a challenge that faces all science fiction and fantasy writers. How do you go from an idea of an object, creature, race or place that only exists at the very farthest reaches of the imagination, to something people can visualize, discuss, and even draw a picture of?

Using a Descriptive Name

Pig Man 1 by JSMarantzThe name Hogler invokes an image of pig-like creatures that walk on two legs. Perhaps a gruff exterior, and a grouchy disposition. Does this paint a picture in your mind?

Through a name, we can imply certain features. But this isn’t enough to offer up a vivid picture. What if the name is just that, and not meant to be descriptive? In a fantasy world, hogs may not exist. Using a descriptive name takes advantage of reader knowledge and sometimes defies world logic. This tactic can work in near-earth fantasy worlds, but breaks down in more distant settings.

We can use a name to take advantage of reader knowledge of other books with similar creatures. If I write about dragons, I call on that reader knowledge of dragons to fill in the blanks, and then require only limited description to distinguish my dragons from Middle-Earth dragons, Pernese dragons, and DragonLance dragons. But Hoglers are a unique creation. There’s nothing else like it, and so this method falls short.

Physical Description

SP-Giant Slug by JustMickThis is by far the easiest way to flesh out an imaginary creature or object. Let’s say that a Hogler is a blue-skinned legless creature with four arms and a strip of black hair down its back. A pattern of grey spots covers its shoulders and chest, and is unique to each one. A large central eye gives it a wide range of vision, and from the top of its head several smaller eye stalks protrude that wiggle around and look in different directions all at once. It has no visible mouth or nose, and wears no clothes.

Now that we know what they look like, is that all we need? Perhaps not. Could you draw a picture of one? Does this stand out in your mind as a realistic creature? A Hogler is certainly a bizarre creature, but it ranks as a stock description right now. I would read this in a fantasy book and probably breeze by it.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

eyeball critter by orgoWhat a person, creature, or object does is just as important as what it looks like. By describing in detail the actions it takes, an imaginary thing can be brought to life in a way that physical description alone cannot match.

The Hogler slithers along the ground, its central eye shifting left and right, scanning the area. Its eye stalks point in different directions and its movements are careful and measured. When it spots something of interest, it raises two arms into a defensive position in front of its central eye and focuses all eye stalks on one point.

Suspicious? Careful? It leaves one with the impression that it would be an easy target if attacked. However, if we change the actions, we can make it threatening, timid, vicious, the sky’s the limit. This fleshes out the creature and gives us a better idea of what it is, and what its role is in the imaginary world. As writers, we strive to evoke an emotional response from our readers, and the actions of our creatures or objects are just as important as a gentle or fearful physical description.

The World, According to Hoglers

Looking at the outside of a creature is not the only way to get a good feel for a fantastical creature. Getting inside its head and writing from the creature’s point of view can give your readers a more intimate impression of the creature. In this case, there are some things that will be dependent on your creature’s personality, and some that will be dependent on the race. It’s up to you as a writer to be consistent about which aspects belong to the race.

Knowing what’s inside your creature’s head and understanding their motivations, needs and desires will go a long way to paint the beautiful picture you want your readers to have. If you don’t understand the creature, then how will your audience?

Hoglers, According to the World

Her only friend by EdliHow do other creatures, characters, and things react to your imaginary creation? Knowing this can bring another element to this masterpiece. It’s one thing to have a really well-described creature or thing, but if your audience doesn’t understand how it fits in with the rest of the world, then no connection can really be made. You have a fantastic creature, with no real place or role in the world.

This is where you go the extra mile. Interactions between creatures and things will form the backbone of most stories. Being consistent and detailed with your world’s actions towards imaginary things can build up the realism that will keep people believing in your work, and coming back for more.

When you put all this together — physical description, naming, attitude and interactions — it’s easy to see how some authors can create vivid pictures without ever drawing a line. The key is understanding what you want to create, and being consistent about it.

This article was originally published on December 15, 2011.

Title image by Zeeksie.

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8 Comments

  1. Rachel Ellen says:

    Was nodding along reading every word! Great food for thought when comes to the matter of totally new concepts. Creating a character or indeed an entire new race or being can be daunting, even if we as the creator can visualise and understand ourselves it can be difficult to translate that into text for the reader – this article certainly helps realise so many good approaches to bringing the indescribable to life!

  2. Jezrien says:

    I’ve actually been spending a lot of time going over this subject latley. From drawing my own pictures to writing short stories of certain creatures and races to get a better feel for their enviroment and characteristics. Really good write up, if I happen to hit a snag I’ll make sure to read this again just to be certain that I’ve tackled all the corners.

  3. Adriana Ryan says:

    What a great article. I was just describing something in my book and wondering, “Does this cover it? Will people know what I mean?” when I came across this article on Twitter. Thank you!

  4. Doug Dandridge says:

    Really good short writeup. I try to make mundane writers understand the challenge of writing fantastic literature and they never seem to get it. When you include revolvers, Volvos and McDonalds in your description you only need mention the word. Not so much with Ogres and Maurids (one of the alien races described in my upcoming scifi release). I write fantasy (both Urban, High and Unusual), alternate history and hard science fiction. Mundanes don’t seem to realize that when I am describing the inside of a spaceship or a fortress, Nasa pictures and German countryside does not always cover it. Avoiding word dumps is a challenge, as is cutting short on description and using natural dialogue to explain things (avoid the “as you know Jim” kind of dialogue). And in the scifi field the common knowledge of the genre sometimes actually creates more of a problem. If I am describing a Matter-Antimatter Drive ship I may not be describing the Enterprise, but that is the first thought that is going to jump into most reader’s minds. I have to actually fight their image of what they think I mean. And most readers have their own idea of what magic means, though it can be everything from nose twitching witches like on TV, or sorcerers calling up demons from the Abyss like in Robert E Howard.

    • You raise some good points, Doug. These are things I tried to convey here, and I hope I did it successfully. When dealing with things in fantasy, a single word can have many different meanings depending on the setting and context.

      Thanks for reading. 🙂

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