How to Describe a Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in Murder, My Sweet, the film version of Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Following up on my post on scene descriptions, I turn today to describing characters. The basic principle is the same: we want to create a feeling over and above a mere picture. And the way we do that is to filter impressions through the point-of-view character.

I’d like to break this subject down into two parts. First, how to describe the main character, the protagonist. Second, how to render the other characters through the eyes of the protagonist.

Main Character Description

There are two schools of thought when it comes to describing a main character.

The first is to give little or no visual info about the character. This allows the readers form their own picture. There’s a vividness that springs directly from the reader’s imagination.

This approach––minimalism––seems to be the preferred style these days. The exception may be category romance, which usually puts the main characters right on the cover.

If you want to offer a fuller character description, your challenge is two-fold. How much detail, and how to deliver it? In the past it was common to give full information via an omniscient POV, as in the beginning of Gone With The Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Here eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin––that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

These days, however, the more intimate Third and First Person POVs are favored. So how do you describe a main character without her sounding vain? I brushed aside a wisp of my auburn hair and focused my startling green eyes on him.

Here are a couple of ways:

Have another character provide the description

In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Way, I wanted readers to know Mike was in great shape and looked like a fighter. So the first scene finds him jogging and stopping to talk to a middle-aged woman trimming flowers (just before a church blows up):

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you, Mike. Except …”

“Yes?”

“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“Football player, maybe?”

I shook my head.

“Then what exactly do you do with all those muscles?”

“Are you flirting with me, Nell?”

She pushed her hat back slightly. “If I was thirty years younger, I’d rip your T-shirt right off.”

The mirror trick

It is frowned upon by keepers of the craft to have a character pause in front of a mirror (or window or bright, shiny toaster) and report what she sees. I looked in the mirror and saw my red hair hanging there like a bunch of kelp. My jade eyes, which men normally went wowsers over, seemed dull and lifeless. Was I really that depressed?

You know what? I don’t think readers care about it as much as writing teachers and critique-group nannies do. So if you really want to put in such a moment, I’m not going to throw a pencil at you.

There’s an alternative: imagine what another character would see when looking at the protagonist.

I could just imagine old J.D.’s reaction. “What’s with those baby blues of yours, Hal? They look scared. And why don’t you just give in and cut your hair? You want to be a Viking or a lawyer?”

No matter what style of description you choose, be sure to put it somewhere up front, because it only takes a few scenes for your readers to lock in a picture. If you give them some startling descriptive element in the middle of the book, it will be jarring.

Describing Other Characters

Now let’s turn to when the POV character in a scene describes another character. As with setting, I have a checklist:

  1. How do you want the reader to feel about this character?

This is a strategic decision. What’s the tone and purpose of your scene? How will this new character figure into that?

  1. Using the sense of sight, make a list of what the POV character notices about physical appearance

Jot down five to ten items. As you go along, push beyond the familiar. See if you can find one “telling detail.” That’s one image that seems to sum up the entire character. David Copperfield’s first sight of the unctuous Uriah Heep begins:

The low arched door then opened, and the face came out. It was quite as cadaverous as it had looked in the window, though in the grain of it there was that tinge of red which is sometimes to be observed in the skins of red-haired people. It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep. He was high-shouldered and bony; dressed in decent black, with a white wisp of a neckcloth; buttoned up to the throat; and had a long, lank, skeleton hand, which particularly attracted my attention…

What got me was “no eyelashes.” That’s surprising and vivid. And it goes with Heep’s character, for his is always secretly observing. He is not to be trusted. He’s creepy. Dickens captured all that.

  1. Consider the other senses

Smell, hearing (the voice), touch (a handshake) … think about these as well. I’d leave taste out of it (eww).

  1. What personal impression does the character make?

Here is where you can use the POV character’s personal interpretation, like we did with scenes. He wouldn’t stop talking. He was a New York traffic jam full of angry cabbies.

  1. Write the description, let it rest, then edit

Give it your best shot, then take a little break. Grab some coffee. Watch the news.

On second thought, don’t watch the news.

Then come back and tweak the description as you see fit. 

The grand master of character description was Raymond Chandler. He wrote his Philip Marlowe detective stories in First Person POV. Here’s Marlowe’s description of Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

Here is the snarky voice of Marlowe, and the perfect image—beer truck. Chandler could have chosen anything. …not wider than a schoolhouse…not wider than a cow pasture. But those images would not be how Marlowe thinks nor how Chandler wants to set the scene. A beer truck is urban. It is for people who drink in bars. That’s the feel of the whole chapter, which takes place inside a saloon.

A few paragraphs later, Moose Malloy returns: 

A hand I could have sat in came out of the dimness and took hold of my shoulder and squashed it to a pulp. Then the hand moved me through the doors and casually lifted me up a step.

Not a big hand. But a hand I could have sat in. Then what that hand does to his shoulder, and not just lifting, but casually lifting Marlowe. Two lines, and we know this character is huge and dangerous and in control.

Additional Notes

You can characterize by comparing the person to something

Robert B. Parker does this in The Godwulf Manuscript: 

He looked like a zinnia. Tall and thin with an enormous corona of rust red hair flaring out around his pale, clean-shaven face.

I like what a middle-schooler once wrote as part of a metaphor exercise in English class:

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. 

Needs some editing, but perhaps with a little coaching this kid will be a writer someday.

Minor characters should have at least one unique, visual tag 

Minor characters are an opportunity to add spice to your book. Don’t waste their descriptions by making them plain vanilla. Give them at least one unique visual tag.

Instead of the doorman let me in try a doorman too fat for his faded green coat let me in.

You can characterize by what another character is not 

In my current WIP, a Mike Romeo thriller, he is describing the banal bathing-suited men and women at a Hollywood pool party. They are all pose and giggles. Mike observes:

A meeting of the American Philosophical Society this was not. 

You don’t have to describe everything at once 

It’s often a good idea to drop in descriptive details along with the action. Think of it as you would in real life. You see someone at a distance. You form an impression. As you get closer, you notice other things. It’s sort of like a camera starting with a long shot then moving in for a close-up.

Let me end this post with my favorite descriptive example of all time. It comes out of the popular Bulwer-Lytton bad opening line contest from several years ago.

With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.

Any thoughts you’d like to add on the subject of character description? 

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NOTE: For years people have asked when my writing seminar might come to their town. Well, now their town can come to my seminar. WRITING A NOVEL THEY CAN’T PUT DOWN is live. You can get all the info by going here. And here’s a little promo:

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20 thoughts on “How to Describe a Character

  1. I have all your craft books and continue to re-read them but I still look forward to your Sunday TKZ posts each week. I need to encounter advice many times in different ways before it finally start to sink in. Thank you to you and the other bloggers for the great craft posts that have appeard in recent weeks. I love this blog!

    • I ditto that, Nancy. Not only the appreciation of all the TKZ authors but the value of revisiting writing topics in blog form even if you have 1 million books on craft (the more time passes the less exaggeration that 1 million number is. LOL!)

  2. Nancy, it’s always been my philosophy that if you can pick up one new tip or technique on the craft, the time spent reading is worth it. Even on ground that’s been covered, the way someone puts it will often turn on a little light bulb of insight that one hadn’t had before.

    That’s what we here at TKZ love to do. Thanks for the confirmation!

  3. I’m revisiting an old ms this week so this is timely. We talk about voice being mysterious and hard to define. Sometimes I feel like the winning formula for character description is just as mysterious and nebulous. What’s the difference between novels that have characters which are literally movie-reel quality knocked it out of the park type books, great read books with not-necessarily described characters, and books that are simply sleepers (they may describe characters well but the book is a yawner)? It seems to me the successful techniques vary—from more detailed character description to the minimalist version you allude to at the beginning of this post.

    My ms has a large cast of characters. Using 1 unique visual tag will help a lot since not only do I want the characters to be more than cardboard, I want to help the readers keep them straight. But I’m wondering: if you have to use this technique with a lot of characters, does it begin to sound like an over-used device?

    Of note, when someone read this ms a few years ago, in their comments they noted that a minor character later in the book received more description than any of the other characters. OUCH! But minor though he was, I had fun writing that character (and I couldn’t even tell you why—I think it was a break from the tension in the story to that point) so I’ll have to look at that and balance it in the grand scheme of the story—I don’t want readers to think he plays more of a role in the rest of the story than he does.

    I’ve got to find my niche in character description. I don’t prefer the minimalist approach, but the overly-described character (ie. eons of description of a woman’s dress, fabric, purse, shoes, etc.) makes me want to throw up. I’m going to experiment with your suggestions in mind.

    • But I’m wondering: if you have to use this technique with a lot of characters, does it begin to sound like an over-used device?

      Not at all. You vary the choice of style, but between creating a vivid and strategic impression v. no impression at all, the former is always the better way to go.

      Ah, but you hit on an important point, BK: the more attention you give a minor character, the more the reader will expect that character to have a proportional influence on the plot. So we choose wisely. I encourage you to keep “having fun” in the creation … but then be objective about how much of that to keep in.

  4. I’m just like Nancy. Every Sunday, it’s the NY Times and you! Always something pertinent to say and I particularly like the fact that you always cite examples to illustrate your point.

  5. I, like Nancy (see a theme here?), reread your books often. They’re among a very short list of reference materials that I actually bought physical copies of (rather than digital). Awesome stuff.

    So many poignant points and examples above. Two of my favorites, though, are to sprinkle them in rather than dump them in one paragraph and (probably my favorite) to use the character’s voice to make the description. Not only do you learn about the object of the description, you learn a little about the POV character then, as well.

    Thanks for another great post.

    • Thanks, Staci. We Zoners love to hear that we’ve been able to help our fellow writers.

      Yes, character voice is such a great supercharger. Again, Chandler is the man. He was the Mozart of description.

  6. Add me to the Sunday favorites list. Thanks for another classic blog. Agatha Christie was another writer who was terrific at descriptions, and once described the body of a young, toothy victim, as having “teeth running down the back of her throat.”

  7. Jim, thanks for another great post. Like others have mentioned, I have all your craft books in paperback so that I can underline, highlight, dog-ear, and paperclip. And I refer to them often.

    Good luck with your video course, Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down. I’ve heard you speak at ACFW in Indianapolis and Am Romance Writers in Columbus. I will vouch for the added benefit of hearing the course, in addition to seeing and reading it. Plus the entertainment. I believe that Abe Lincoln said he read out loud so he could see, speak, and hear what he was learning.

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