U is for Under the Skin

I’m going for subcutaneous today: meaning under the skin, though the outer layer is pretty important too.  

Look at an illustration of skin and you should find either two or three main layers depicted.

1. Epidermis. This is the outermost layer that people see instantly when they look at someone. The Epidermis is, in the way of nature, not confined to being a simple layer. This is not intended as a biology lecture so I’ll simplify it to five separate cell levels.

2. Dermis. This it that lovely inner layer of connective tissue with those tiny little vessels that link up to the pores on the outer epidermis. In the dermis you’ll find hair follicles, lymph glands, and vessels for transporting blood and other bodily needs. Sweat produced here helps to maintain body temperature and sebaceous glands produce sebum to keep the outer layers moist and supple.

3. Hypodermis. This is not technically part of the skin layers but we all need our skin to be attached to our bones and ligaments and the hypodermis does the job admirably…or in my case when you’re of a ‘certain age’ things don’t quite connect as easily as they used to. Like when an injury to soft tissue and ligaments can result in your epidermis and dermis being a bit spongy against your bones…for months! But I digress - Biology talk over.

(For another lovely coloured image of skin see here on Wikimedia commons - if you are procrastinating and need a break… http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skin_layers.svg )

But…What does that have to do with my writing?

When defining a character in a novel I’m thinking that a lot of attention needs to be paid to all of those levels  - many layers on the surface and also deeper levels under the skin - the perception of the reader needing to be addressed very carefully. Is my writing going to leave the reader at a complete distance, or is it such that the reader really feels they are seeing my character at all levels? Or even better is the reader experiencing being my character? How can I adjust my writing to ensure the reader gets the best experience?

Let’s look at number 1. Epidermis. I need to make my reader see that immediate front to my character, the basic visual – though not in a boring or totally descriptive way, and not two dimensional either. In my current writing, a follow-on novel, I have a character who appeared in the first one. He was described as being even more handsome than the hero of the first book, but little was given of his under the skin levels. He was, in many ways, truly a remote secondary character.

In the current book he is a main character. His physical appearance undergoes dramatic changes- battle with the Roman Army and a searingly sharp gladius tended to do that! Therefore, for my readers, I need to show changes to superficial and visible levels. Since it’s also a stand alone novel the description of the before and after has to be carefully interwoven within the plot. Some would say writing about superficial description is the easy bit but let’s get back to that perception thing. What I, as a writer, perceive and enjoy may be different from my reader, but I need to make that reader believe in what I perceive through specific vocabulary. Here are some options for description, mostly on a surface level.:

Version 1: He was a handsome warrior, tall and competent in weaponry.  This writing is distant and cold…even boring.

Version 2: Few surpassed his height and strength. Towering over opponents less able to wield a broadsword had stood him in good stead many a time and had been contributory to him becoming tribal champion. Winning a woman’s favour came easily. His appearance, said to be very fine to look at, had gained him great acclaim amongst the females of the settlement.

This takes a reader closer to the character but it could still be better. There’s still a bit of reserve here.

Version 3: The ability to fiercely brandish his Celtic broadsword from aloft, as few others had the strength to manage, was a fine reputation for him to have gained. Vanquishing smaller and weaker opponents satisfied him as nothing else could… save, perhaps, the winning of the most beautiful, beddable female which his good looks would attract anyway, whether or not he achieved tribal champion status.

I think this is closer to the character but…what do you think? Is the POV (point of view) deep enough for it to be him ‘speaking’? (Without changing from third person to first person.)

Version 4: The stench of warm blood, of gut-wrenched entrails, and of faeces of man and horse clinging were irrelevant. His blood dripped sword whacking from aloft; heady satisfaction mingling with sweat across combat-spattered skin; and battle cries louder and more strident than most – that was exactly what drew female attraction and he knew it.

What do you think about this one?

When describing my character’s development I also need to consider Number 2. Dermis - that wonderfully connective layer.

My Celtic warrior has changes to his physical self but also personality changes. His life has been drastically altered so for my readers I need to show those under the skin layers - how they eventually heal, and to what degrees they heal. From being rated as a handsome warrior, though he is not a vain one, he has to contend with a new appearance. Scars to a Celtic warrior’s face I don’t believe could have mattered so much back then as perhaps it would now. I believe what would have been psychologically much more damaging would have been physical impairments which meant prowess and physical abilities were curtailed. In my writing, I need to work through all of those dermis layers and ensure my readers are empathising with temper changes and fluctuations of mood till the character has changed sufficiently to be living in his ‘new’ skin and in his new situations. What is his new motivation? How can he achieve new goals. What will the conflict be in getting him to be successful in his new skin.

If pores are blocked then the appearance might not be so fine. If the sweat glands don’t work so well then the temperature fluctuates. How debilitating can that be to a character who wants to be fit and healthy? Hale and hearty? Stable sebum levels make the skin supple and well ‘oiled’. I need to show how my character copes with ‘dermis’ layers not functioning- both temporarily and permanently as his character development progresses throughout the novel. Tension and rigidity need to be portrayed, at times, as he comes to terms with his new self. Accommodation of new situations has to be made evident in my writing. When blood flows properly through all skin levels I need to be sure the reader knows this is eventually happening. Avoiding repetition, making my character really grow through that process of overcoming adversity is paramount to enjoyment of the story.

Considering Number 3. Hypodermis. All parts of my character need to connect internally but also need to connect to the reader’s perception of how ‘he is hanging together’ within the plot structure. It’s not just a matter of how he changes but of how other characters interact with him and yet also develop in their own right as the plot thickens and matures. Inter-connectivity matters a lot since the perception of one character of another can also show development. Lots of levels need to be mixed, matched and connected for the reader’s experience to be a successful one.

That is not to say there is no place in a piece of writing for mixtures of Version 1, or Version 2 or 3 or 4 as described earlier. To avoid reader boredom it is a skilful mingling of all types of description that, I feel, needs to be achieved. 
Does that sound like a plan? I’m still working on that task. How about you?

Nancy Jardine

Nancy Jardine can be found at the following places:

Amazon UK author page  http://amzn.to/N6ye0z     
Amazon.com author page  http://amzn.to/RJZzZz  http://nancyjardine.blogspot.com  http://nancyjardineauthor.weebly.com  
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email: nan_jar@btinternet.com


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Kiru. It's great that you've popped in and commented!

  2. What a useful way of looking at character. An excellent exercise would be to actually draw these diagrams with character and personality traits on each level, and then deciding how those elements will come out in the writing.

    1. I never actually thought about the 'drawing out' of them but it's a fantastic idea, Diane!


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