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
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.
This 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
What 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
How 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.