Saturday, April 10, 2010

Technical Topics: Describing Characters

How do we let the reader know what our folks look like? 

I want to be fairly specific about physical description.  I find the process of giving eye color, hair color, skin type and so on, technically useful, rather than an annoying necessity.

I'm fortunate enough to use two major POVs, (Yeah!) so I can describe each character through the eyes of the other. That also means I give an interpretation of the physical traits, not just the literal list. (Two lips, indifferent red . . .)

It's interpretation that's interesting, innit?

(you don't have to read this. I get to the actual point somewhere down below the excerpt.)

They emerged. A tall man, dressed like a prosperous tradesman
but brown as a farmer, strode ahead. His servant boy lagged
behind, struggling with a pair of donkeys.

The big man stopped in the center of the courtyard and
stood with his back to her, his head tilted to look up at the
streaked black and gray facade of the chateau.

He was not a man of fashion, certainly, but he was no shabby vagabond.  He dressed substantially and practically, outfitted for hard travel with a plain coat and high boots. His hands, heavy
and motionless, hooked into the waist of his trousers. His
wide-legged stance was calm and meditative.

He could have been a soldier, surveying a captured city,
preparing to raze it and salt the earth, or a builder, inspecting
the blocks of a fallen Roman villa, calculating tonnage,
planning to buy and transport the marble. As she watched,
he pulled his hat off and slapped it against his thigh. There
was decision in that motion. The whisper of great force,
held easily in check.

I do not like this at all.

He carried no sign to say he was Crow’s messenger. A

red ribbon with a knot in it, any bit of red cloth, knotted,
would be enough. He was only a stranger in her domain,
pointless and useless to her.

You have no business here. Go away

He did not, of course. He set his hat back, low over his

forehead, and flipped the collar of his coat up. He turned
slowly, taking in the dairy house and the coach house,
working his way around. At this distance, she couldn’t
make out his features. Weak, gray light slid across his face,
drawing a suggestion of high, flat cheekbones, a jaw dark
with stubble, a jutting nose. His hair was brown and hung raggedly on his neck.

If he had inhabited a fairy tale he would have been the giant, not the prince. Giants are more chancy to deal with than princes.


This is a looong passage to get maybe thirty words of actual character description across.
But then, that's not what I'm doing. 

I'm not inserting Doyle's description in the way you fit backstory in -- thinking of it as three-day old fish and deploring it.
Here, the personal description is one of the tools at hand.  It's actively useful for what I want to accomplish. 

The snippet is not 'about' sharing hair color and clothing detail with the reader. It's 'about' Maggie's internals.  About her emotional reaction to seeing Will Doyle.  I use the huge physicality of William to explain Maggie's first judgement of his nature (--  nervous --) and to show her uncertainty about her situation.

Physical description, once we tamp it down inside some character POV, reveals both characters. It 'adds value' to otherwise neutral descriptive factoids.  Being in POV assigns emotion to the human form.

'Brown hair' is just hair.
'Raggedly cut brown hair' is still just hair, though we know more about it now.
But in the eyes of a woman looking over a large stranger, that 'ragged cut' hair becomes a little threatening.  Now, ragged hair has an emotional content.

We need such human detail to make deep POV realistic.  It's natural to notice what people look like.  This is normal focus.

Walk past a random tree, a house, the sidewalk, a car parked over yonder, and a seven-year-old on his bicyle. Asked, ten minutes later, to describe them, you'd have ten or fifteen words for the tree or the car.  You'd have two hundred for the child.

People -- fictional people too -- are interested in and moved by the way other people look.  That's a good reason to describe our characters. And when we put human description into deep POV, instead of into narrative or dialog, we show the natural engagement of one character with the physical being of another.  We're not just telling about it.

So, not so much the telling  in this passage --

Doyle appreciated a fine breast as much as the next man, but he hadn't meant to grab hold of this one.

But more the demonstation of action and internals.  The showing of--

Fine pair of breasts she had. White as split almonds.
Round as peaches. The nipples peeked out, since the fichu
wasn’t doing its job. A pair of dark little roses, pulled up
into buds. Tasty looking. And if he got any closer he could
put his mouth down and lick them.

That’s going to reassure her—you slavering at her tits.

Human visuals, placed in character POV, draw us into the internals, become an easy, natural part of the action, and, (it's hoped,) make everything more interesting to read.

Look at the Doyle factoids in the long extract up top.  They could be set in straight narrative:

William Doyle was tall and broadly, strongly built. He wore
the wool coat, heavy breeches and tall boots of a prosperous
tradesman. Tanned skin covered his high, flat cheekbones,
jutting nose, and a jaw harsh with subble. His hair was brown
and hung raggedly on his neck.

And isn't that economical but bland?  Not heaping amounts of savor and zing.   We see what William is, but we don't see why a detail is important.  His hair, face, and clothing are without context.
And . . . we don't get nudged and slapped upside the head by cool relationship stuff.

I'm lucky to be writing Romance.  I can plot the First Meeting tight to the opening.  I can delay physical description of the characters till I crawl into the right POV.   

This frees me from the pesky -- 'How do I tell the reader the heroine is blond?' problem.
Such a relief.

bike photo by studiocurve


  1. Anonymous3:12 PM

    Oh, I loved reading that bit about Doyle. I still have an image of him from MLS - hands hanging on the lintel of the Meek's St. doorway, leaning in to chat with Sebastian and Adrian. This is exactly how I pictured him. I love the giant vs. prince analogy.

    June 1st is too far away....sigh.

  2. Anonymous5:57 PM

    Great post! I must confess I'm one of those people who find descriptioning (TM) to be a necessary annoyance. I tend to skim descriptions when I read, skip them when I write so I always have to go back in and add them. I try to make them flow with the scene, move with the plot, but I don't do nearly as good a job as you do! I don't write straight-up romance, though, so I'm hoping I get away with my sparce descriptions, lol.

  3. Oh, hurray! Thanks for the sneak peeks! Can't wait!

  4. @ anon and @ Elisa --

    I am rather fond of Doyle myself. *g*

  5. @ brimfire --

    This isn't an exhaustive consideration of 'descriptioning'. *g* Just the case where we have both Deep POV and the need to establish the Romance relationship.

    Physical characteristics are all kinds of useful in showing how the two MCs feel about each other. You're right in seeing this is going to vary for different kinds of writing.

    One interesting thought I had -- one could do the same technique for a pair of enemies.

  6. Ha! Would you put a glass of ice water in front of desert traveler and say "you don't have to drink this"? Of COURSE I'm going to read a Maggie excerpt, the longer the better. :)

    You know, I'm starting think Doyle might be giving my Adrian a run for his money in my affections. I do have an extraordinary soft spot for giants.

    *sigh* So, how much longer do we have to wait again?

  7. "That’s going to reassure her—you slavering at her tits."

    From that line alone I am so excited for Doyle and Maggie! Naughty boy...

  8. @ Linda --

    They're very different sorts of Romantic heroes -- Adrian and Doyle.

    It comes down to what's sexy, doesn't it? And what's romantic. I'm trying not to write the same characters over and over again, so it's all rather experimental, each time.

  9. @ Katiebabs --

    A bit crude, our Doyle, in the privacy of his own mind. Though I don't believe men think in euphemism even nowadays.

  10. Anonymous3:29 PM

    I got to thinking - do you have any photos/people in mind that remind you of Doyle and Maggie? I'm thinking back to the post where you linked to pictures for Sebastian/Jess and Robert/Annique...

  11. @ Anon --

    For some reason, it is always much harder for me to come up with good pictures of the heroes than the heroines.

    Let me think about faces for a bit and try to come up with a picture or two.
    It may take a while. *g*

    But, to make up for the delay, I'll do a blog post on it.

    I have been fairly conscientious in not posting these celebrity photos because I don't have permission. Howeeeever . . . I have given this some thought and I've decided these are publicity snaps and intended for wide distribution.

    So -- this is the good part -- when I do that posting in three or four weeks I'll be able to stud it with photos of the heroes . . . as it were.

  12. Anonymous11:55 AM

    Yippee! I look forward to it. Thank you very much!

  13. I'm a lurker, and I was going to write a long and inarticulate "squee", but let me just you are so fabulous! I just love the way you write, for me you hit all the right notes, and make it look effortless. Thank you!

  14. Hi Bunnie's Mom --

    Thank you so much. *Jo blushes* To celebrate your kindness I put a picture of a bunny in the post just after this one.

    Which is to say the post that comes just before this one in line

    because that is the Logic of the Internet, (like turning off the computer with a button marked 'start',) and doubtless responsible for most of the troubles that plauge the modern world.

    The Logic of the Internet is responsible for that, not bunnies,

    who have their faults, of course, but cannot be held directly responsible for Putin and Global Warming and the way strawberries don't have any flavor any more.