Distinctive Silhouettes in Prose

Yesterday I talked about distinctive silhouettes and why they’re important in comics and other visual media. My question, thinking about this, then became “What’s the prose equivalent? How do we manage distinctive silhouettes when we’re limited to words?

The first thing we need to remember is that for the prose silhouette, most aspects of appearance aren’t all that important. In some stories and games, appearance is the last thing we see, and one of the easiest to misinterpret.

We also need to remember that the silhouette depends on being concise. As the silhouette in comics or art slips into the panel without necessarily pulling the focus onto itself or obstructing the pace, so too should the prose silhouette slip into the text without requiring a paragraph worth of description or needing to sum the whole thing up with “–It was [Character].” Therefore, while the silhouette can piggy-back off of words that are already advancing the plot, it should contain as few words as possible that serve only to provide its outline.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t use distinctive physical traits, but we need to be careful which ones they use. They need to not only be visible from a distance (or from whatever angle we expect to be using the silhouette from, which does occasionally mean that eyes can sneak by), but be summed up in two phrases at most, preferably just one. If someone sees a feather on a large hat bobbing over the crowd, and only one character has such a thing; if one’s known for shedding amber light, and the light around another’s shadow suddenly takes on a distinctive yellow-shift—that’s what we’re looking for.

I find the most important feature is voice, particularly in a situation where there are a lot of people talking at once. If you’re in the middle of a conversation, and you don’t want to have to drop back to names constantly, or you want to give people a better chance of keeping track of the conversational threads, having notable differences in how all of the characters speak will help to keep them straight. When keeping voices distinct, though, I recommend a balance between blatant differentiators like accents or catch-phrases and less blatant ones like vocabulary, overall attitude, dominant sense and the like. Too much of the subtle ones and it’ll take longer for people to figure out which goes to who, but too many of the blatant ones and it looks like trying too hard.

Consider also a character’s abilities, particularly the flashy and unique ones. How many times have you seen a character enter preceded by a burst of their signature energy blast or a projectile weapon of their unique type? There you have five or six words that make up a picture.

Another thing to consider, particularly if you have a character who’s likelier to be doing something that people notice later—or to maintain the analogy, casting a shadow rather than appearing in silhouette—is to consider what sorts of traces they might leave behind. What you’re going for is the kind of thing that, mentioned later, would cause the listeners to nod and say “Yep, that’s [Character] all right.” Think about it: you’d know exactly what was going on if you found a Z carved into somewhere or someone by sword-point. That’s what you’re going for. Sometimes you can skate on action and focus it more on agenda, if it’s pretty clear that only someone advancing this particular agenda would have done [whatever it is], and [Character] is one of the few with that agenda.

Creating a distinctive silhouette in prose is a somewhat more subtle art than doing so in artwork, but they serve many of the same effects. Try to do the same for characters—or at least, try to make sure that ones with similar silhouettes aren’t in very many of the same circles, so people can use context to disambiguate them.

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