Character Descriptions – Part 1

Character Descriptions, Part 1
Terry Odell

When I decided to address self-description, I found that it would make for a very long post. Since everyone’s time is valuable, I opted to split it into two posts, so you’ll get more on the topic when it’s my turn again. Today, it’s a few tips for writing character descriptions.

A while back, I started reading a book I’d received at a conference. I’d never heard of the author, and was looking forward to adding this one to my collection. I love discovering new authors and new characters, and since this book was part of a series, I knew, if I enjoyed it, there would be more.

I settled in to meet the characters. The first paragraph immediately punched some of my buttons. I prefer a “deep” or “close” point of view, and if the first time I meet a character, she’s brushing her thick auburn hair away from her face, I get antsy. People don’t normally think of themselves that way. This says, “outside narrator” to me. Not a deal-breaker, but not my taste. I’m a Deep POV person.

These descriptions went on with more self description—shoving white hands into the pockets of her black jeans. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about what color my hands are—unless I’ve been painting.

I moved on to Chapter 2. My twitchiness increased when in the first paragraph, the introduction to the character had her capturing her long raven hair and fastening it into a ponytail. When the first sentence of chapter 3 introduced a new character pulling her long blond hair into a ponytail, I hit my limit.

Yes, understand that readers like to “see” characters, and if you’re not writing in a close POV, you can describe them the way an outside narrator would see them, but readers would like to see that you can get beyond hair—or at least vary more than the color. By now, I’m not seeing different characters, I’m seeing pages full of clones of faceless, shapeless, long-haired women with ponytails.

There’s more to describing a character than hair color. There are other physical features one can mention, as well as emotional states. Here are a couple of examples, all including hair and more.

From “An Unquiet Grave,” by PJ Parrish, where the protagonist is observing another character, one he knows from the past:

“She was standing at the stove, her hands clasped in front of her apron. She had put on a few more pounds, her face round and flushed from the heat of the oven. Her hairstyle was the same, a halo of light brown hair, a few curls sweat-plastered to her forehead.”

Another, this from “Rapture in Death” by JD Robb, who writes in an omniscient POV:

“The man was as bright as Roarke was dark. Long golden hair flowed over the shoulders of a snug blue jacket. The face was square and handsome with lips just slightly too thin, but the contrast of his dark brown eyes kept the observer from noticing.”

Or here, from “Rain Fall” by Barry Eisler, written in 1st person POV, where hair is a major part of the description of the main POV character, but it’s showing more than a simply physical description—and readers haven’t “seen” the POV character before this from page 7—we don’t need to know what he looks like from page 1, paragraph 1.

“When I returned to Tokyo in the early eighties, my brown hair, a legacy from my mother, worked for me the way a fluorescent vest does for a hunter, and I had to dye it black to develop the anonymity that protects me now.”

When I’m writing, I prefer to use very broad strokes and wait until another character does the describing. My editor and I go back and forth about how much time I should spend describing my heroine in my opening paragraphs “because readers like it” versus “it’s not how people think of themselves.” I know we’ll see her through the hero’s eyes in chapter 2, just as we’ll see him through her eyes. So, in my first chapter, in paragraph 1, readers see her emotional state. The only description comes in the second paragraph:

Or (not to put myself in a league with the above quoted authors), a quick sample from one of my books. The character is on her way to a job interview.

“She refreshed her makeup, then finger-combed her hair, trying to get her curls to behave.”

Does it matter what color her hair is? She certainly knows and isn’t going to be thinking of it—unless she’s changed it for a reason, such as in the Eisler quote. We know she cares about grooming because she’s stopped to check her appearance before her interview. She wears makeup, which reveals something about her character, and she’s got unruly curls. That’s enough for page 1.

My tips:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Do you have any other tips to share? Pet peeves?

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

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Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

26 thoughts on “Character Descriptions – Part 1

  1. Good morning, Terry. It is interesting to me that you picked the topic of characters as I was recently described in those terms, as in “Joe? He’s a character!”

    I loved your tips, particularly #1 and #6.

    Pet peeves? I have a herd of them! The two big ones are 1) “bullet pointing” the description, as in “(insert character’s name here): Five-six. One hundred forty pounds. Black hair. Brown eyes.” I’m seeing that more often for some reason. It might be a terse style but I think of it as lazy writing. 2) This isn’t quite what you are talking about but books that introduce a passel of characters within the first couple of pages quickly leave me at sea and sink the book.

    Thanks for a great post, Terry. I’m looking forward to Part 2 and beyond.

    • Thanks, Joe. I’m reading John Sanford’s “Ocean Prey” right now, and after writing this post, have been looking at the way he describes characters. Short and to the point, but there’s always a bit “more” than just describing clothes and features.
      “… He was wearing a double-extra-large golf shirt, khaki shorts, and cross-trainers. He could have sold billboard space on his back”

  2. Terry, thanks for discussing a problem that particularly vexes us series writers.

    In the first three books, my main character was described by villains who are stalking her. But with later books, that technique no longer worked.

    B/c people often read a series out of order, I think it’s important to give some early description for those who haven’t met her before. Do you have suggestions of fresh ways to describe the main POV character in later series books?

    • I’m a description minimalist, and since I write in Deep POV, it’s even harder. If I feel the need to describe the character, I either try to have another character mention a point or two, or give the character a good reason to be thinking about his own description.
      Here’s an example from my first Blackthorne, Inc. book, “When Danger Calls.” The protag, Ryan, has been called into the boss’s office. This is halfway into chapter 1.

      Blackthorne removed his half-frame reading glasses, snapped them into a leather case, and slipped them inside his jacket pocket. He pushed away from his desk and levered himself to his full height.
      At six-three, Ryan usually looked down on people, but he adjusted his gaze upward to lock eyes with his superior.

      And then this:
      Ryan waited out the silence, his eyes moving up Blackthorne’s furrowed brow to the salt-and-pepper hair, neatly parted, still thick. He resisted the urge to run his fingers through his own hair, hanging in unruly tendrils over his collar.
      Then, when Ryan threatens to quit …
      Ryan reached for his wallet. He pulled out his ID. Ryan Harper. Six-three, brown eyes, two hundred pounds. Not much had changed. True, he was thinner since his illness. He focused on the photo. The face of a younger man, fresh and optimistic, stared at him.

      I don’t know if that’ll help, but it’s how I did it for that scene.

  3. No major pet peeves in this area for me, though I think I would start to get a bit annoyed if everyone is pulling their hair back into a ponytail (unless there was a good reason why this repetition was used).

    Description of character is one of those things I have to work at. I fall somewhere in the middle–while I understand the frequently repeated idea that readers want their own vision of characters, when I read I want the writer to be confident of THEIR vision of the characters–I want to know what they had in mind. So I probably fall somewhere in between.

    • Good point, BK – no matter what you do, some readers will want it to be different. To be honest, half the time I imagine the character looking like the author’s picture on the book jacket.

      • On my first book’s cover, the heroine looked as I’d pictured her, but the hero was not even close. I searched through my writing to figure out how the artist had seen that man as my character, and decided whoever had drawn it was using her dream man as a model. Or maybe they had a dark-haired Fabio in their stable. It wasn’t one of the choices I was allowed to make, but it still bothers me after all these years. Ridiculous, I know.

        • I know authors who have to have pictures of their main characters before they can start writing. I try to avoid having them on my covers, although I did end up redoing covers of a bunch of my books to make the genre a little more obvious. Suzanne Brockmann pasted happy face stickers over the hero’s face when the art department got him totally wrong. As an indie, I have more control of the covers, and for this book, I did find a stock photo of someone I thought might be a good match. Of course, this is the third book he’s appeared in (he was a secondary character in the other 2), but I went back to check, and I’d never given much of a description of him.

          • Hi, all good stuff. Many years ago I was told it was good sense to never feature illustrations of any of the main charracters on a book cover— as the image will always be at odds with what the reader has conjured for themselves. In the 80s a good many book covers would feature stills of characters from TV or movie adaptations. The reader is then put in a position of trusting the casting director—not the author—to have got the look and posture of a main character right. Not good.

  4. Great post, Terry. I’m writing a series, and beta readers frequently tell me that they want more description of secondary characters, and want the characters to be reintroduced. What I try to do is use your # 5 (double duty) and turn it into triple duty – describe, use the description to show character, and show the character in action that reveals description and personality.

    I agree with #3 (Less is more), but I’ve been lectured by beta readers. The girls want a lot of description. The boys want the story to move on with the action. So, know thy audience.

    Great post. I look forward to reading Character Description – Part 2.

    • Knowing what readers want and expect is half the battle, I think. If your descriptions can pull triple-duty, so much the better. The Hubster always wants explosions and dead bodies. He gives up on TV series when they spend too much time on the B plots, developing relationships between characters. I love watching relationships develop. In fact, my favorite mysteries are the ones that show the private lives of the protagonists. Hmmm… maybe that’s why I call my books “Mysteries With Relationships.” 😉

  5. Writing in First Person, I usually have another character make a remark about my Lead, e.g., “You look like you can handle yourself in a fight.” But otherwise, I leave it to the readers to form the picture, which they’ll do anyway.

    More important is how the Lead describes other characters. It gives a picture of the characters, yes, but also how the Lead thinks and feels about them, which is a revelation of inner life. That’s the “double duty” part.

    • Thanks, JSB – you can always distill my ramblings into the good stuff. Description should be showing more than the outside of a character.

    • Good tip, JSB, about another character saying aloud a description of my MC. I never thought of that.

      And More important is how the Lead describes other characters. I’ll be taking a look at that angle in my WIP, too.

      Y’all are brilliant!

  6. Great post, Terry, and again, timely for me.

    I’m within a couple of days of sending No Tomorrows to my editor for her first look at it. Before I send it, I now plan to scrutinize my character descriptions. The novel takes place within a 24 hour window of my MC’s time, and is written from her deep POV only. So, based upon your excellent discussion and tips, I want to make sure that I haven’t gone awry on self-descriptions (such as her “white” hands).

    • Thanks, Deb. If this were my life, I would have sent my manuscript off and then read a post pointing out things I should have done.
      Good luck with the edits!

  7. I recently had a reader tell me she loves one of my characters because he looks just like Shamar Moore. And he does! But all I’ve mentioned is his strong jaw and flawless teeth, because that’s what my MC loves about him. His race I slipped in during an argument. Worked great. 🙂 Less is more.

    • Exactly. And maybe that’s why people have trouble when they make movies or television shows from books. Everyone has their own vision of the character–there was the great Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher outcry.
      JD Robb has a secondary character, Dr. Mira, who’s always impeccably dressed, and that’s most of the way she’s described. What she’s wearing that day, and the herbal tea she drinks. One reader posted somewhere that she’d always pictured Dr. Mira as Asian. Robb will never respond to “who would play Eve and Roarke” in a movie.

  8. Thanks for the great list of tips, Terry. The descriptions of several women with long hair pulled back in ponytails is hilarious. I would have thought a good editor would have nixed that.

    I do tend to have a character be described by another character. Here’s an example:
    “He spotted her as soon as the truck rounded the turn. She was standing alone in the shadows in the middle of the trail, wearing a loose-fitting gray shirt over her running shorts, her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.” (This character is the only one in the book with a ponytail! 🙂

    • I’ve noticed a lot of “loose buns” overused as hairstyles, too. My only suggestion (which you might have written in the next paragraph) would be to work in his impression, as JSB pointed out, so we see what he thinks of her.
      Thanks for sharing.

  9. These are great tips, Terry. I’ve been guilty a few times of the bullet point description that Joe mentions, something I work to change in revision, especially since the “police blotter sketch” descriptive technique is something that tends to bug me as a reader.

    First person is easier even than deep 3rd for avoiding this. It was for my own books. Really, I like the idea of “the telling detail,” something unique to that character, rather than giving us a complete physical description. And of course, this can be done very well in deep 3rd.

    Thanks for today’s post. Looking forward to Part II! Have a great day.

    • Glad you found it helpful, Dale, and thanks for chiming in. When I started writing (which changes the way you read–forever), I hated descriptions. If you’re going to show me every item a character is wearing, in great detail, then I want that blue-sprigged blouse to show up covered in blood later in the book.

  10. I agree: Narrators should not drool over the characters. With third-person narration, it’s unhygienic. With first-person narration, it’s narcissistic. (With exceptions for comedy and deliberate creepiness, of course.)

    My viewpoint characters are generally uncomfortable about describing themselves (I do traditional first-person, where the viewpoint character sits down and writes their story shortly after the fact). This tends to make their self-descriptions more a revelation of attitude than appearance.

    • I agree that hearing a 1st person pov character say, “I combed my auburn hair and sat my five-foot-three body at the breakfast table” is disconcerting, to say the least.

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