Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Technical Topics -- Character Description

Someone was asking whether they should pour out the whole description of a a character all at once -- which might be dull -- or chop it up some and spread it out over a chapter or two.

It occurred to me that this was missing the point somewhat.

So I thought a few scattered thoughts on describing characters.
When you describe a character, you can give a mere list of the obvious. Hair color, eye color, what he's wearing, height, skin tone. But description is more interesting and useful when it serves a secondary purpose. That's thrifty writing.

So we describe our characters and do something else as well.  Here's three or four of the several ways to add value to character description:
(ETA, I made that five ways.)

1) You can tell story with description. Make the appearance part of the ongoing action. The description shows result of what has been and intention for what is coming. You could think of it as description propelled by the action.

Not -- 'he had blue eyes'.
So much as -- 'he opened blue eyes, bloodshot from last night's bender'.

Not -- 'she had brown hair, worn long'.
But -- 'She wrestled with wind-tangled brown hair, taming it before she walked into the meeting.'

Not -- He was a huge, rough-looking man with a scar on his face and gray streaks in his hair. He dressed in the respectable, worn clothing a laborer might wear.

But -- He was dressed like a laborer today . . . a big, ugly, thuggish, barely respectable giant in sturdy clothes. His hair was wet and the gray streaks didn’t show. The scar that ran down his cheek was fake. The imperturbable strength wasn’t.

See how the first set of these is a static description. The second is a description that could only be right in that exact moment.
We don't just say, 'this is how Doyle looks', we imply he has looked different in the past.  It's not how he happens to look; his appearance is related to the rain outside.

2) We do not just see our fellow; we see him through one specific set of eyes. The POV character adds value, insight and weight to the description. The description turns around and reveals that POV character.

She watched him work for a moment, disquieted by the edged beauty of his face. Lines of his hair fell in thin slashes of black. His lips were strongly marked.

She was totally feminine in every movement, indefinably French. With her coloring—black hair, pale skin, eyes of that dark indigo blue—she had to be pure Celt. She’d be from the west of France. Brittany, maybe. Annique was a Breton name. She carried the magic of the Celt in her, used it to weave that fascination the great courtesans created. Even as he watched, she licked her lips again and wriggled deliberately, sensually. A man couldn’t look away.

Could that description of Hawker come from anyone but Justine?  Could Annique be seen that way by anyone but Grey, right then, right there, in their prison?

3) Description is not a 'fill in the blanks' list of things we need to convey. It's part of an overall impression. We do not need to be only literal. For the larger portrait, we mix physical details with metaphor and symbol, story history, archetype. Give the hair color, shape of nose, texture of skin.  Sure. But also enmesh them in meaning when you do it.  Imbed them in the intangibles of the character you are creating.

She had the face of an ardent Viking. Strands of wet hair lay along the spare curve of her cheek, outlining the bones. Her eyes were the color of Baltic amber.

He was young to be captain. Thirty, maybe. He had black hair and a big beak of a nose, and sailor skin, dark and rough, burned by suns that weren't polite and English. Colorful splotches of blood were drying on his shirt. That would be her blood, probably.

4) We use the small details and all the senses.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd wanted a street whore. This one was fresh as a daisy, clean and sweet. She smelled of soap and flowers and spices. Even her fingernails were clean.

ETA:  The comment trail, and a comment elsewhere, brought to mind another common use of character description.  This uses description for a structural purpose. 

5)  Let's say you're going to step outside the on-going action, bring the narrative drive to a screeching halt, slow the pacing to molasses, and do some backstorying or philosophizing.  Character Description is a great way to segue into the internals you're laying down.  Backstory, for instance.  

Lookit here.  We're fairly early into Black Hawk and I'm filling in the What Has Gone Before column. 

“She’ll make it. She’s hard to kill.”

“Many have tried.”

Her hair spread everywhere on the pillow. Light-brown hair, honey hair, so soft and smooth it looked edible. He knew how it felt, wrapped around his fingers. Knew how her breasts fitted into his hands. He knew the weight and shape and strength of her legs when they drew him into her.

A long time ago, she’d shot him. They’d been friends, and then lovers, and then enemies. Spies, serving different sides of the war.

The war was over, this last year or two. Sometimes, he walked outside the shop she kept and looked in. Sometimes, he found a spot outside and watched for a while, just to see what she looked like these days.

The last time they'd exchanged words, she'd promised to kill him.  He hadn't expected her on his doorstep, half-dead, running from an enemy of her own.

I have the most dangerous woman in London in my bed.  

That's description opening the door to backstory.  We go in the order:
a) See her now. 
b) Think about her then.
c) Talk about the past.
d) Bring it back to the present. In this case I do that with a line of Internal Monolog.

ETA2: It occurs to me that I didn't really answer the question at the top.  
How long can a piece of Character Description be?  

Keep it short.  

Do not indulge in the flowery crap that readers skip anyhow.  
Doesn't matter how beautiful the words are, they have to earned a place in the story with something more than pretty.
This here is a famous example of what readers skip. 

I don't say you can't describe at length.  But if you've written more than half a page of Character Description, you should probably go back and reconsider.


  1. I always think it’s best to not go too far into specifics either. I want to give an impression that each reader can flesh out with their own imagination. You do that magnificently. Take that description of Doyle. You might be picturing Clive Owen, while I’m thinking Ray Stevenson, and someone else is thinking Russell Crowe.

  2. Thank you for this.

    As a reader, I often wonder why I respond to some characters and not to others.

    I think description is taken too literally by some writers -- and they don't see the opportunity to further their stories through character description.

    I love the examples that you gave and the difference between static and dynamic descriptions.

  3. This post just confirms your brilliance. Description is my writing weakness. It always seems forced when I try to write it, but your examples were brilliant. I'm bookmarking this! Hopefully, I can improve some of my static descriptions!

  4. Dear God, I want to read all these books again now!

  5. Lovely, thoughtful post, and just what I needed to hear today, to put my writing on the right path. Thanks!

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  7. I think folks take 'describe your character' a bit too literally. We're not fascinated by the appearance of the character any more than we're absorbed in the way our friends look.

    Look at Eve Dallas's hair. Is the 'brown' important? -- No. But the 'chopped off short to be out of the way', the 'unstyled', the 'pushed back from her face' IS.

    We pick the significant physical details to talk about. We tie the trivial to something important. Always, we wield the description to reveal the person within.

  8. Very thought provoking. I will prune my descriptions carefully from now on.

  9. Thank you for another great technical topic!

    That little bit about Annique had my blood pumping. Is there any way we could convince you to bring her and Grey back? I know your timelines are very detailed... Perhaps a second epilogue? Pretty please? With sugar on top ;)

  10. Hi Leigh --

    The problem with transporting characters from one book to another is that even minor folks have to earn their place.

    Maybe I can put Annique and Grey into the Pax story. I'm kinda hoping so.

  11. Jo, I'm doing a complete non sequitur here, but a writer friend of mine is struggling with some flashback scenes (mainly, tenses, and how to get into and out of the scenes using various forms of past tense) and I remember either from this blog or from CompuServe you wrote very eloquently on the topic. If anyone has a link to that conversation or exercise I'd feel very grateful!


  12. I did an exercise on flashback at the Writers Forum. These URLs lead to various bits of that exercise -- I'm sorry I can't make them links in the comment stream.

    Hope something in here can help you.









    Oh. This is kinda interesting because it's an early outtake from My Lord and Spymaster.








  13. I'll second Jen's comment . . . off to read all the books again because EVERY time I find something new to say " ahhhhhhh" with appreciation.

  14. Hi Leslie --

    Thank you so much. There is just no greater compliment than somebody saying the book is worth reading twice. *g*

  15. Jo, the ChrisMcLaren blog post is hilarious!! Breasts like cowries. Face with the fragrance of a gibbous moon. *wipes tears*

    The idea to use description as a segue into backstory and then bring it back into the present is simply brilliant.

    I have a question for you: This is not character description, but rather spatial description. When a character walks into a new room, they immediately catalog everything in there to create an instant image in the reader's mind of where things are at and what they look like.

    This is something that even big names like P.D. James are guilty of, but she can get away with it, because her main character's a trained detective so he would notice things.

    So how would you do finesse this description?

  16. Jo, how does one become a member of the CompuServe board? I couldn't find a registration link. If I'm not a member, I cannot click on your name to look up all your posts. Is that the only way to find all your posts on that board? Also, do I need an AOL account to register?

  17. Hi Keira --

    I have been a member of the CompuServe Forum for so long, I joined under an entirely different protocol.

    CompuServe is now owned by AOL, and your sign-in at CompuServe is actually an AOL (AIM) screen name. I think you might have to go to AOL, join it, and use your screen name and password to sign in.

    Ah .... sorry.

  18. Loved your post. The techniques you demonstrate are ones I look at closely when I edit. Loved all your books; they are the best example of fresh writing.

  19. Thank you so very, very much. I try to talk about the things that give me a hard time in writing. I figure they're hard for everybody else too.

  20. Hi Keira --

    What, you don't walk out of an evening to sniff the fresh aroma of the gibbous moon?

    The spatial description thingum ... let me bring that up and make a posting on it, if I may. It's something I've thought about a bit.

  21. Thanks, Jo, for considering the spatial description issue as fodder for a future post. Looking forward to reading it like all your other posts.

  22. I just discovered these technical topics you've posted, and I wanted to tell you that I am really enjoying them very much! Extremely interesting with great examples.

  23. Hi Joy --

    I am so glad you find them useful. This is something I really enjoy doing. And i have no time to do it.