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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Key Layers to Writing a Solid Characterization

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Image purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Image purchased from iStock by Jordan Dane

Characterization is the way an author conveys the important (and hopefully memorable traits) of their main character. An author should have a vision for how their character looks, speaks, thinks, and interacts in their world. A writer can directly state what their character is all about by saying, “George is a rigid man, both in posture and judgmental temperament.” Or an author can convey key elements and paint a picture of their character by more subtle means, such as in their actions or manner of speech or even body language.

A first person narrative provides an intimate voice for a character, as if the reader has found a personal diary of private thoughts. A third person (Deep Point of View) can be compelling if the voice of the character gives insight into who they are and allows for a colorful and distinct dialogue and internal monologue.

Excerpt from The Last Victim (First Person POV):

My mind acted like a hard drive of stored random facts, especially at stress times. Sometimes they hit me hard and I blurted them aloud. That made dating a challenge. I’d always been drawn to intelligent women, but once I let them into my world, crossing that line usually ended any relationship. I simply had no interest in hiding who I was.

In this excerpt, I envisioned FBI profiler Ryker Townsend as socially awkward yet highly effective at his job. He’s a man with secrets, even from his own team. To be good at his job, he removes any filter he has over the way he speaks so he can access key elements stored in his brain. He trusts his instincts and his team to be himself, and in his personal life he is unapologetic for his peculiar mental leaps. His work is everything to him.

In The Last Victim, I portray Ryker’s life at home where he’s still living in boxes after a recent move, yet his work life is well-ordered. He’s charmingly clueless about his affect on women and very serious minded. He’s a case solver and a high achiever because of how his mind works, yet his mental gymnastics become a challenge in a social setting, where he’s out of his element most of the time. His highly focused approach to his work (and his secretive personal life) becomes the very weakness that could get him killed when he chooses to follow a lead alone. The clues force him to cross paths with the ruthless serial killer he’s hunting, a psychopath who knows how to hide in plain sight.

It’s important for an author to have a picture of the character in their mind’s eye. I often create a storyboard of images to reinforce my ideas. Or I imagine how the character will speak (perhaps by picturing an actor I see for the character). I also give the character baggage that will challenge them with conflict. Often their weakness can get them killed or become a major crutch. Above all, a main character needs to seem real and believable to the reader with a full life on paper.

Here are questions an author might ask about their main character(s) in order to flesh them out:

1.) Who are their friends?
2.) How do they dress? What do they look like?
3.) How do they live at home? Is their work life different?
4.) Do they have hobbies or interests outside of work? What do they care about? Their passions?
5.) How do they interact with others? How do others react to them?
6.) What makes them angry?
7.) What would they die for?
8.) What are their weaknesses?
9.) What do they fear?
10.) Which adjectives would the author use to describe the character’s personality?
11.) What does the character think inside their head? What do they share?
12.) How has their past shaped their life? Is there a traumatic incident that changed everything? How is this manifested in their present?

Once an author has a solid image and characterization in their mind, a writer can set up conflicts to give that character a starring role. Can they overcome their weaknesses? Give them a journey throughout the book that will exploit their deepest insecurities or force them to deal with their worst fears. A compelling characterization is like the foundation to a building. The more solid and well-thought out it is from the start, the stronger the story will be when you build onto it.

For discussion: Please share any tips you have to creating your characters. Do you storyboard images? What resources have helped you?

tmp_4087-TheLastVictim_highres-1601584079
The Last Victim now available in print and ebook. Sales links HERE: “When FBI profiler Ryker Townsend sleeps, the hunt begins.” Townsend has a secret he won’t share with anyone–not even his own team–that sets him on the trail of a ruthless psychopath alone. 

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Using Fence Post Characters

fortitude My favorite stories, written by me or someone else, are those dealing with characters best described as “fence post” characters which usually possess at least two or more of these traits: they are out of their element; in at least potentially in trouble: they have little or no idea how they got where they are; and have to rely on their skills and wits, to get out of the situation, though they appear to be ill-suited to do so. Think of a turtle on top of a fence post, if that helps. Sometimes a character like that can make, or save, the story you are telling, particularly if it just isn’t working otherwise.

I thought of this while binge watching a new dramatic series named Fortitude. It’s on the Pivot Network, which you’ll find in the equivalent of the nosebleed seats of your cable television system.  Fortitude is set in a desolate section of Solvard, a Norwegian territory; the title is the name of the small town where almost of the story takes place. Two murders bookend the first episode, and at first it looks like your typical whodunit which will be investigated by a barely competent sheriff who may well be in the tank for some special interests relating to tourism as well. Everything changes, however, in Episode Two, with the arrival of our “fencepost” character in the form of Detective Chief Inspector Morton. Brilliantly played by the criminally underappreciated Stanley Tucci, Morton is 1) an American; 2) an ex-FBI agent now working for the London Metropolitan Police; and is 3) investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the murder victims, who is a British citizen in 4) a God-forsaken area of Norway that looks like Boston (or Columbus, Ohio) did last week. Morton’s arrival puts almost everyone concerned in high dudgeon, particularly the sheriff (at least at first), but there isn’t much anyone can do about it because of some treaty of some sort which gives Morton jurisdiction. Morton no sooner sets foot on the slippery ice when he starts uncovering things, frozen ground and non-stop snowfall notwithstanding. Think of a cross between True Detective and Twin Peaks (the television series, not the restaurant chain) and you’ll have a vague idea of where things seem to be going. Morton, however, out of his element but not out of his league, is the fulcrum which takes the story off in an entirely new direction.

You can do this in your own work. If your story or novel isn’t working, change up your primary character. Make them uncomfortable in their own skin. Change gender or race or education level, just for a start. Even a small difference taken to its conclusion, logical or otherwise, can change the character and or the story dramatically. Downsizing your character’s abilities, such as they are, and throwing them to the sharks when they can’t swim works even better. I read a book several years ago — and I apologize out front for not being able to recall either the name or the author (yes; I’m getting old) — of an Asian father whose daughter disappears while attending college in England. He doesn’t speak English but makes the trip, determined to find her, armed with little more than fortitude and a keen power of logic and observation.

I do recall the name of a short story — because I have read it at least once a year since it was published — which puts a somewhat unassuming turtle on top of a very dangerous fence post. I’m speaking of “Duel” by Richard Matheson. “Duel,” in case you haven’t had the pleasure, concerns duela motorist named “Mann” who is terrorized along several miles of highway by a trucker. The story was written over four decades ago, some eighteen years before the term “road rage” ever entered the nation’s lexicon, but still reads well. Mann is not Jack Reacher, or even his baby brother; he is totally out of his element and just wants to be left alone to keep driving. It doesn’t happen, of course, but what does will keep you reading. Steven Spielberg made an excellent attempt at capturing Matheson’s magic in a made-for-television movie, but you have to read the story to really appreciate what Matheson did so well.

Now, if I might ask…authors: have you tried this? And readers: have there been any fish out of water characters that you have enjoyed in novels, stories, or films? Please. Share with us.

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Bad Boy, Whatcha Gonna Do?

By Joe Moore

If I asked you to name 5 of your favorite heroes and 5 villains, which would you think of first? Which would come easier, the good guys or the bad? If you’re an action-adventure fan and you read a lot of Clive Cussler novels, Dirk Pitt would probably pop into your head right away. Now, name one arch-villain in a Dirk Pitt novel. We all know or have heard of Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne and Lara Croft. But name the bad guys they fought against. The reason it’s harder to recall specific villains is because it’s harder to write memorable bad guys. There aren’t that many Hannibal Lecters out there. But there are quite a few Clarice Starlings.

If you’re working on making your villain memorable, here are a few tips to do so.

Your villain must have multiple layers, perhaps even more that your hero. Stereotypical 2-D villains are boring. Why? Because we’ve all seen our share of non-motivated antagonists. A bunch of teens go to a cabin by a lake and start getting chopped up one by one. Seen that before? The villain is a killing machine. Why? Most of the time we have no idea. How about a good guy who turns bad. The motivational layers are all there. Just watch BREAKING BAD or DEATH WISH.

Your villain must be intelligent. Perhaps even more so than your hero. The brilliant bad guys are the ones that make the hero work really hard to solve the conflict. Their meticulous planning and concentration make them memorable. To see a brilliant villain in action, watch DIE HARD or SPEED.

Your villain had to have baggage. Preferably enough to make the reader cheer for him at least once. This usually happens near the beginning of the story where we see what motivates him. There is a hint of sympathy from the reader. But it doesn’t last long. Mr. Villain does something nasty and the sympathy shifts to the protagonist.

Your villain must face a fork in the road—a point in the story when he chooses to become a bad boy. The reader must believe the choice was voluntary. No one is born evil. They must choose to become evil somewhere along the way, for a believable reason.

Most important of all, your villain must be convinced he’s right. He needs to believe that his course of action is the correct path. Whether it’s revenge or jealousy, or some other strong motivator, he must do what he does out of commitment to being right. He must believe it and so must the reader.

As you write your villain into your manuscript, remember that he is not a throwaway character. He must be accepted by the reader for what he stands for and what he believes. For most of your story, he has to be as strong a character, if not stronger, than your protag. Make him memorable.

Now your turn. Name 5 of your favorite heroes and five villains your love to hate.

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Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author
Follow Jodie on Twitter

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?

Or have you ever had a friend go into great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details in interesting tidbits, please!

In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact, they’ll probably skim through it, and more likely, find something else to do instead.

Another related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and observations by other characters.

Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!

Contrary to what a lot of aspiring authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.

If you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip, and wonder how much of it is actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude, personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.

Involve and engage the readers.

It’s also important to remember that readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.

Unlike nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether they’re to be trusted or not.

Let the readers get to know your characters gradually, just like they would in real-life.

For ideas on how to approach introducing your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to snippets of conversation. A few people interest you so you move closer to them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns, rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and that of others interacting with them.

Perhaps you decide to strike up a conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details – colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a bit of gossip here and there.

That’s the best way to introduce your characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve been through, isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry, guilt, etc.

So rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are acting and interacting.

Reveal juicy details, little by little, to tantalize readers.

And don’t forget, the most interesting characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by layer, just like in real life!

Readers and authors, do you have any observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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