Character Descriptions – Part 2

Character Descriptions – Part 2
Terry Odell

character descriptionLast time, I gave some tips for character description. I’ll repeat them here:

  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!

Today’s focus is on dealing with character descriptions in First Person or Deep/Close/Intimate Third (which are almost the same thing.)

I am a deep point of view person. I prefer everything to come from inside the character’s head, However, I will read—and enjoy—books written with a shallower point of view. It all comes down to the way the author handles things.

What are authors trying to convey to their readers with physical character descriptions? The obvious: hair color, length, style to some extent. Eye color. Height, weight, skin color. Moving forward, odds are the character is dressed, so there’s clothing to describe. This is all easier in a distant third POV. Using that POV, you can stop the story for a brief paragraph or two of description, a technique used by John Sandford. In a workshop, he said he didn’t like going into a lot of detail, and listed the basics that he conveys in each book, usually in a single paragraph. Here’s how he describes Lucas Davenport in Chapter 2 of Eyes of Prey, one of his early Davenport books:

Lucas wore a leather bomber jacket over a cashmere sweater, and  khaki slacks and cowboy boots. His dark hair was uncombed and fell forward over a square, hard face, pale with the departing winter. The pallor almost hid the white scar that slashed across his eyebrow and cheek; it became visible only when he clenched his jaw. When he did, it puckered, a groove, whiter on white.

But what if you want to write in deep point of view? Staying inside the character’s head for descriptions is a challenge. Is the following realistic?

Sally rushed down the avenue, her green-and-yellow silk skirt swirling in the breeze, floral chiffon scarf trailing behind her. She adjusted her Oakley sunglasses over her emerald-green eyes. When she reached the door of the office building, she finger combed her short-cropped auburn hair. Her full, red lips curved upward in a smile.

You’ve covered most of the “I want my readers to see Sally” bases, but be honest. Do you really think of yourself in those terms?

There are other ways to convey that information. First, trust that your reader will be willing to wait for descriptions. Make sure there’s a reason for the character to think about her clothes, or her hair. Maybe she just had a total makeover and isn’t used to the feel of short hair, or the new color, or the makeup job. Catching a glimpse of herself as she passes a mirror and doing a double-take is one of the few times the “Mirror” description could work for me.

Even better, use another character. Some examples of how I’ve handled it:

Here,  an ex-boyfriend has walked into Sarah’s shop and says to her:

“You look like you haven’t slept in a month. And your hair. Why did you cut it?”

“Well, thanks for making my morning.” Sarah fluffed her cropped do-it-yourself haircut. “It’s easier this way.”

Note: there’s no mention of the color. Someone else can bring it up later. Neither of these characters would be thinking of it in the context of the situation.

Later, Sarah is opening the door to Detective Detweiler. We’re still in her POV, but now we can see more about her as well as a description of the detective, and since it’s from her POV, there’s none of that ‘self-assessment’ going on.

She unlocked the door to a tall, lanky man dressed in black denim pants and a gray sweater, gripping several bulky plastic bags. At five-four, Sarah didn’t consider herself exceptionally short, but she had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.

Sometimes, there are compromises. My editor knows I don’t like stopping the story, especially at the beginning to describe characters, but she knows readers might want at least a hint.

This was the original opening paragraph I sent to my editor:

Cecily Cooper’s heart pounded as she stood in the judge’s chambers, awaiting the appearance of Grady Fenton, the first subject in her pilot program, Helping Through Horses. She’d spent months working out the details, hustling endorsements, groveling for grant monies, and had done everything in her power to convince her brother, Derek, to give Grady a job at Derek’s Triple-D Ranch.

This was my editor’s comment to that opening: Can you add a personal physical tag for Cecily somewhere on the first page—hair, what she’s wearing? There’s a lot of detail that comes later, but there should be something here to help the reader connect with her right away.

So, I figured there’s a good reason I’m paying her, and added a bit more.

Shuffling footfalls announced Grady’s arrival. Cecily ran her damp palms along her denim skirt, wishing she could have worn jeans so she’d have pockets to hide the way her hands trembled.

My reasoning: I mentioned the skirt was denim, because the fabric helps set the “cowboy” theme for the book, but there’s no more detail than that. Not how many buttons, or whether it’s got lace trim at the hem. Now, let’s say she was wearing Sally’s “girly” skirt. For Cecily, that would be far enough out of character  for her to think about it, BUT, I’d make sure to show the reader her thoughts. Perhaps,

“She hated wearing this stupid yellow-and-green silk skirt—jeans were her thing—but Sabrina told her that skirt would impress the judge.”

See the difference between that and Sally’s self description earlier?

How do you handle describing your POV characters?


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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.

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31 thoughts on “Character Descriptions – Part 2

  1. More good tips, Terry. Thanks.

    I like the idea of using contrast in descriptions–Sally normally wears jeans and feels silly and uncomfortable in a fancy skirt.

    Another way to slip in clothes is to show the POV character comparing herself with others around her. In my first book, Instrument of the Devil, the protagonist dresses up in a stylish suit she hasn’t worn since her husband’s funeral to meet an attorney for the first time. But when she arrives at a gathering full of lawyers, everyone else is dressed casually, making her feel even more conspicuous and uncomfortable about her plight.

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    • Exactly, Debbie, and thanks for your examples. Anything that puts us in the character’s thoughts instead of “stop the bus, I have to tell you what I’m wearing/what I look like” is so much more effective.

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  2. Good tips, Terry. I’m a minimalist regarding my First Person POV characters, because I think readers form immediate pictures in their own minds (I know I do). What a character says and does means more than what color his hair is, etc. I have to decide what important physical information is necessary from the jump, and then I usually let it come via another character. If there is something significant, it needs to be mentioned early, because by page 50 the reader has a picture going, and if the eyes are suddenly brown when the reader saw them as blue, there’s going to be a disconnect.

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    • Thanks, JSB. We do hate those disconnects. Another reason I tend toward minimalism when it comes to description (the first being, I suck at it.)

      When reading, I have a tendency to see the character as the author’s picture on the book jacket (gender permitting), although with ebooks now, those don’t show up as often.

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  3. Thank you, Terry, particularly for sharing the call-and-response between you and your editor, which is very illustrative and resonates far beyond those few sentences. It’s the type of thing that many of us don’t think of until after the fact.

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    • While I don’t always agree with everything my editor suggests, I do have to trust that she’s a professional and can see with a different set of eyes.

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  4. Terrific tips, Terry.

    Since I also write in deep POV, I handle description in the same way, usually filtered through another character unless there’s a good reason like your denim skirt example. I do have one secondary character with a huge ego. She’s always checking out her outfit and figure in reflections, which makes descriptions easy for her. But it fits her character. If she didn’t check herself out, readers would wonder why. LOL

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    • Filtering through the character is key, and if you’re writing a series with recurring characters, readers will expect them to behave as you’ve set them up. The downside to recurring characters is balancing how much to show for new readers without boring the returning ones.

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  5. Great post, Terry. I’m a minimalist, too, preferring only the brief description that shows us what is significant about the character. Let the reader form their own image. But, I get lots of criticism from my middle-grade beta readers (especially the girls) for not providing enough description.

    Just to stir things up a bit, I offer the following: I’ve often wondered why authors don’t use the cinematic technique of zoom – going from wide angle to telephoto – more often, at the beginning of a scene, chapter, or book, to satisfy the readers’ desire for description of setting, character, etc. The POV gradually changes from omniscient to close third or first person.

    Thanks for the tips on description.

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    • Thanks for stirring the pot, Steve. As a reader, that would drive me nuts. I want to stay deep inside my character’s head. In fact, authors who use that “stop and show” technique usually have me skimming for the meat.
      Not to say it’s not used, and not to say it can’t be effective. Depends on the audience–as does everything.

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    • Steve, that’s a time-honored device, primarily at the beginning of a novel. Start wide, then drop into close POV. Honestly, I don’t think reader care one bit. It’s us writers who notice these things and get fussy about them.

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      • I think it works better for me at the beginning of the novel, not each scene. But as you say, we writers are more sensitized to things like this.

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    • Steve, I agree with Terry about staying in the character’s POV. Your idea, while it works well on the big screen, for novels it seems too much like the author butting in, exercising his authority, reminding the readers of who’s in charge. And it also seems like a lazy way of getting the setting details out of the way quickly. I like a novel to open in the protagonist’s POV (so we know right away whose story it is) and stay in his/her viewpoint for most of the story, like at least 70%. I also don’t want to hear about the setting without the character’s reaction to it (hot, cold, tired, amazed, etc.). Ditto with descriptions of other characters — I want to see them through the eyes of the protagonist, with his/her reactions to them.

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  6. Good reminders, as we develop characters, Terry. I like to avoid direct character description “stoppers,” too. But in deft hands they are refreshing in a sea of other prose. Give us a chance to catcher breath—as, like you suggest—they don’t drag oni.

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    • Thanks for stopping by, Carole.
      “Deft hands” to be sure. Often, writers use more of a laundry list of boxes to tick off.

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  7. Great tips, Terry. I tend toward minimalism. Mathilda Brandt, hero of my Empowered series, was my first person POV, and someone who used one or two details to describe other characters. She was also 6′ 2, and conscious of her height, so that was something she would mention relative to other characters. She was also attractive, but she never mentioned that, because she never saw herself in that way.

    My new mystery novel is written in 3rd, something I want to deepen in revision. This post gives some very helpful guidance.

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    • Thanks, Dale. Glad there were some helpful tidbits.
      Deep 3rd is virtually interchangeable with first. You should be able to change the I’s to “he” or “she” without any changes in meaning.

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  8. Thanks, Terry! I like reading and writing in DPOV. These examples of how to work in a drip of character description are great. 🙂

    In one WIP, I needed to describe a teenage boy, the son of my MC. “’Hey, that was longer than five seconds!’ Hank’s indignant expression looked so like his father’s, with his black wavy hair, olive skin, and dark eyes.”

    I know this example isn’t my MC describing herself, but I needed a bit of description of father and son, so this is how I did it. I waited until page 8 to drip this in.

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    • Waiting for another character to show up is perfect, Deb (as long as it’s not on page 191!) I think my second example, where Sarah compares her height to the detective’s, was around page 7.

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  9. Character description is my worst skill, especially when it comes to describing men. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but it’s much easier picking out specific details for them. And now that I’m wanting to write black men, it’s so much more difficult (they don’t seem to have much hair to work with).

    On another note, I was rereading a ne favorite and noticed that the author didn’t give a description of the main character until over 150 pages in. We get a description of her clothes and the fact that’s Italian, but not until she directly interacts with the other POV as herself do we get any clue about her hair or eye color or the expression on her face.

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    • Thanks for sharing that. For me, hair and eye color are minor points when I’m reading. I’d like to get an idea of build, a mannerism or two, and there’s always the inevitable “what’s she wearing” that pops in. I’d wonder whether waiting for 150 pages might lead to what JSB warned about in his comment, though. Then again, regrouping after hair/eye color might not be too big a deal.
      I recall discussions about one of JD Robb’s recurring characters, Dr. Mira, who’s described more with her fashion sense (coming from Eve’s perspective, and she regards clothes as a social necessity more than anything else), and one reader commented that she’d always pictured Dr. Mira as Asian.

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  10. Thanks for continuing your list of great tips about characterization, Terry.

    Sometimes I think a character can be best described by his / her voice, posture, gait, or even odor (e.g. cigar smoker.)

    I have a scene in my WIP where the main character is waiting for her sister. Two children who are with the MC say they’ll be on the “lookout” for the sister. “Does she look like you?” they ask. The MC replies they don’t look at all alike and proceeds to play a game with the children, having them describe her (the MC) and then telling them the corresponding attributes of the sister.

    As I was writing it, the scene appeared to be very natural, but I’m not sure if it works or if readers will think it’s a heavy-handed approach to character description. I’ll have to see what my editor thinks.

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    • I think this sounds like a good way to get description across. It’ll probably boil down to how much of it there is, and whether it’s all needed to move the story forward.

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  11. Talking about character descriptions makes me think of Jack Reacher. I think the only thing Lee Child wrote about him was “tall”. How they got Tom Cruise to fit the role escapes me, so here’s to imagination, Terry.

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    • I believe that Child included “hands/fists the size of hams” in his description. He spoke at a conference just prior to the movie coming out, when the casting was a big issue for his readers. He said Cruise fit the role at 90%, and it was understood his height was the missing 10%.
      Which opens another can of worms. Casting for tv/movies. CJBox has 2 series in production, and fans are complaining about the liberties the casting departments have taken. People who haven’t read the books won’t mind, but those who have are complaining the pictures Box has painted of these characters is fixed in readers’ minds, and going against type really irks them.

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  12. Excellent points, Terry. I much prefer deep point of view in my reading and encourage it in my editing, where I flag instances of head-hopping and clunky, unnatural descriptions, such as your mirror example and saying the heroine blushed or her cheeks turned red, when of course she can’t see her cheeks! I advise a change to “cheeks burned” or a similar sensation she can feel from the inside.

    I also suggest changes when my author clients want to stop and give a detailed catalogue description of each character as they come on the scene. Height, build, hair, and any obvious personality traits or quirks are usually enough at first, with maybe a brief description of what they’re wearing. And of course, their attitude and intention are what matter most! How does the main character see (hear, smell) other characters and react to them internally/emotionally? Do they make her nervous? Or…? Those reactions, as you’ve mentioned, also serve to deepen the characterization of the protagonist.

    Great post!

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    • Thanks, Jodie. Now, if you could convince some of the Big Name Authors (and their editors) that we don’t need those detailed characters descriptions every time someone new comes on scene …

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  13. Hi, very useful post. Thanks.
    Here’s a recent effort at character description as seen through the eyes of the main protagonist. The reader is already aware that the person being described is ‘…about six-foot-two, clean shaven, with the scent of a familiar after-shave…’

    No mention of skin color, hair color or eye color:

    ‘Henry registered various details about their would-be client, or prospective client’s representative; he spoke with a localish burr; he was probably raised and schooled within a northern radius of twenty to twenty-five miles of Northchurch; he wasn’t a smoker; he was married; his bearing, his posture, suggested he’d spent time undergoing physical training with a military unit or sports team; his casual get-up of smart shirt, no tie, chinos and jacket suggested a certain confidence with his place in the pecking order—he was no simple errand boy, and he was no boss. He was certainly representing someone else—he wasn’t agitated, and didn’t seem personally troubled or vexed.’

    No mention of skin color, hair color or eye color—am I doing something wrong here?

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    • Someone sizing up a potential client is going to want to garner as much information as possible. As written, however, it’s coming across as a laundry list of characteristics, and might be better if broken up. Maybe the client has a line of dialogue, triggering the “he’s from XXX” reaction.
      Not sure how his clothes reveal his place in the pecking order, but that could have been established earlier.
      A lot of what you describe is going to depend on what’s important to your protagonist. We’re seeing him through those eyes. What’s important to him? Eye color probably doesn’t matter unless he’s heterochromic. Skin color would probably be something he’d notice unless where he lives/works, etc., is predominantly one race, in which case he’d note someone different, and not think about someone who’s the same.
      But if his sole purpose in assessing this person is to see what kind of a person he is, not what he looks like, you wouldn’t need many physical details here.
      Also – I’d suggest you lose the semicolons. There are those here at TKZ who content they don’t belong in fiction. 😉

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  14. I write in traditional first-person, where the viewpoint character sits down and writes her story, on purpose, with an audience in mind, sometime after the adventure. Thus, she describes her appearance in an in-character way. None of my viewpoint characters are comfortable describing themselves in word-porn, or in any kind of detail, so you get a few quick brushstrokes and a side order of attitude.

    Less admirable physical characteristics, like one character’s polio-crippled legs, get described in more detail, but mostly operationally. “Matchstick legs” is all the physical description you ever get.

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    • Sounds like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone’s approach, although after a chapter, she makes me forget she’s recounting her case, and I’m engrossed in the story as it unfolds.

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