How to Describe Your Main Character

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Going to be a long post today, so pack a lunch. And be prepared to add to the discussion. The issues are important and come to me by way of an email (quoted with permission):

I know what 3rd Person Limited is, how it works, etc. based on the books and writing groups, etc. One issue that keeps coming up in my critique group about my characters is I don’t describe them early on (i.e. first couple of chapters) as the three POV characters haven’t met or interacted as of yet. I know the reflection scenario is cliche, etc.

The question- do you know some different techniques that could be used to provide character description in the 3rd Person POV? For example, would something like this be okay?

Maxwell rubbed at the double cleft of his chin or His thick fingers combed through his mop of black hair picking up the oily grease used to mat it down.

The issues raised are these:

1. How much description of a main character do you need?

2. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

3. What role does genre play in all this?

  1. How much description?

In days of yore, authors often began in an omniscient voice for a description of the protagonist before dropping down into Third Person POV. For example, here’s the first paragraph 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. Her 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.

And the opening of The Maltese Falcon: 

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

And this from page 2 of For Whom the Bell Tolls: 

The young man, who was tall and thin, with sun-streaked fair hair, and a wind- and sun-burned face, who wore the sun-faded flannel shirt, a pair of peasant’s trousers and rope-soled shoes, leaned over, put his arm through one of the leather pack straps and swung the heavy pack up onto his shoulders.

There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these. It’s a style choice. And I don’t think readers care that much, as long as the description is short and sweet, and we get to some action soon.

But styles change, and today the preferred method is to keep the POV consistent from the jump.

The real question is this: how much detail do we need? And I’m going to say: not much.

Why not? Because all readers form an immediate picture of a character the moment they appear on the page. Without any description at all, we create a visual image, usually based on the actions and dialogue going on.

And you know what else? That picture will usually defy writerly details. Does anyone really picture Sam Spade as a “blond satan”? (I know, it’s probably because of Bogart…but even so, I can’t imagine Spade ever as being blond.) My picture of Spade emerges from the way he talks and how he treats the other characters.

In Dean Koontz’s Sole Survivor, Joe Carpenter wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching his pillow, calling out his dead wife’s name in the dark. Koontz describes the spare apartment he’s in. No bed, just a mattress. No other furniture. He goes to the refrigerator and gets a beer. He sits on the mattress and drinks.

We never get a physical description of Joe. We don’t need one. Just reading the first few pages I have a picture of Joe in my mind. It’s not the same picture you have, or any other reader, and that doesn’t matter. I see him, but more importantly, I sympathize with him. I don’t need to know the color of his eyes, or his hair, or his height.

There is, however, one detail that is usually important for the reader to know, and that’s age. Readers will assign an age to a character. They will “see” a picture in their minds. You can help them along by giving them dialogue and actions commensurate with the character’s age in the story. For example, a cop arriving at a crime scene and jumping out of his cruiser is not going to be pictured as Walter Brennan.

But sometimes the age must be specific. If so, find a place where the character might logically think about his age. For example, he’s about to walk into his workplace. At thirty-three, he was in his fifth year with the company. So why was he feeling like a complete newbie?

What we would call normal physical features are not usually crucial for the reader. What is important are any unique features that help to characterize: A scar on the cheek. A broken nose. Long, unkempt hair. Being tall. Being short. These are the details you’ll want to emphasize.

  1. What’s the best way to show descriptive elements on the page and remain true to POV?

The general rule is, never describe something in words the character himself wouldn’t use. In the example from the email, above, would the character think, “I’m rubbing my thick fingers through my black hair”? No. He knows his fingers and he knows his hair color. I recently read an opening page that had something like this:

Haskins looked around the room with his piercing, blue eyes.
“Over here, chief,” one of the cops said.
Lifting his lanky frame out of the chair, Haskins walked over to the cop.

Would Haskins think this way? No, this description is coming from the “outside,” that is, from the author, which makes it omniscient POV. Is this some egregious violation? I wouldn’t say so (though some editors might label it “author intrusion”). I just don’t think it’s that effective.

So what’s the alternative? Try a dialogue exchange. Have another character do the describing for you. In my first Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Rules, I wanted readers to know this is a guy who is strong and in shape. On page one Mike is jogging when he stops to admire the flowers being tended by a woman who is around sixty. After some initial chat:

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?”

This is First Person POV, of course, but is equally applicable to Third Person.

The other physical detail crucial to Romeo is the tattoo on his left arm. It’s Latin script: Vincit Omnia Veritas. Other characters naturally ask about it. One character wants to know if his name is “Vincent.” Another character can actually read Latin. And so on. The tat is remarked on in each book, giving me a chance to naturally reiterate what Mike Romeo’s drive in life is all about—Truth Conquers All Things.

Be sure to give these distinguishing details early in Act 1. If you wait until page 240 to reveal that your hero has one green eye and one blue eye, the change will be jarring. The reader will actually feel cheated. Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?

Yet it doesn’t have to be on page one either. If it’s early enough, readers will happily adjust their picture as needed. In the first Jack Reacher, Killing Floor (which is told in First Person), Reacher is sitting in a diner when cops come in to arrest him. He’s taken to a station for questioning. It’s not until page 16 that we get any description of Reacher. A cop explains that a murder took place, and a man was seen, “a white man, very tall, wearing a long black overcoat, fair hair, no hat, no baggage.” This gives Reacher as narrator a natural way to drop in the following:

Silence again. I am a white man. I am very tall. My hair is fair. I was sitting there wearing a long black overcoat. I didn’t have a hat. Or a bag.

Or, in the alternative, the cop could have said, “Just like you. What’d you do with the hat and the bag?”

So, the fundamentals are:

– Use description only for unique features.

– Use other characters to spell them out or, in the case of First Person, have a legit reason to mention them.

– Drop these details in early enough in the book that it won’t jar the reader later.

  1. What role does genre play?

My friend, bestselling author Deborah Raney, reminds me that in a romance eye and hair color (even if vague like “pale” or “dark”) are important because those are things the heroine will notice about the hero and vice versa.

In a literary novel where style is often a selling point, a lush description of the main character is more acceptable.

In a historical novel, the way a character dresses is usually important because it shows the reader something about the era the story is set in.

And in an experimental novel there are no rules, so do whatever the heck you want.

Whew. Okay, enjoy your lunch now. And take over from here. What questions or comments do you have about main character description?

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Fiction Is Truth Serum

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Driving a car in Los Angeles offers great insight into human nature.

Some years ago, along a stretch of the freeway we Angelenos call The 101 (not “one-hundred-and-one” but “one-oh-one,” thank you very much) I was being harassed by the car in back of me. I had just completed what is known in driving school as a lane change. As I recall I indicated my impending move by way of the turn signal, though how much notice I gave the gentleman in the next lane I cannot remember with precision.

Quite apparently, however, he took umbrage at my action and began honking his horn, flashing his lights, and declaring his displeasure with a single, upraised digit.

I could see how red his face was via my rear view mirror.

Now, what do I do in situations like that? My first urge is to try to think of something that will frustrate the churlish driver even more. But then (I certainly hope) a “better angel of my nature” kicks me in the ribs and I try to let the whole thing pass.

This I did, and started whistling a merry tune.

The fellow behind me, though, was not satisfied. The moment he had an opening he shot over to the lane on our right (without benefit of signal), gunned his automobile, then cut in front of me (again without benefit of signal). He offered me one more look at his middle finger.

Which was when I noticed the bumper sticker on the rear of his car:

ONE PEOPLE. ONE PLANET. PLEASE.

Ah, humanity. What a study. And what a lesson for our fiction.

For who are we really? Who are our characters?

We/They are not the masks we wear when things are smooth and tidy. Or perhaps, to put it another way, what we are truly made of is only revealed under pressure.

That’s what great fiction is about—how a character transforms when forced into conflict (I contend that to be great, the conflict must be life or death—death being physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual. This includes thrillers, romance, literary…any genre).

We’re not going to read 200—or even 20—pages about a flirty girl in a big dress trying to land an aristocratic husband. Only the Civil War and the prospect of losing her home is going to show us what Scarlett O’Hara is made of.

Who is Rick Blaine, the reclusive owner of a café and gambling den in the city of Casablanca? It seems he does live his life according to one rule: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But what happens when the Nazis show up and try to push him around? And then close in on the only woman he has ever loved—and her resistance-hero husband? The whole movie is about forcing Rick to look at himself (as if in a mirror) and figure out who he really is … and, more important, who he must become.

Think of the pressure of the novel as being truth serum for a character.

So who was in back of me in that car? A nice guy advocating for peace in the world who was having a bad day? Or a plaster saint who plays The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” in his apartment even as he flames people with a burner account on Twitter?

The great thing about fiction is that the tests we give our characters, and who they turn out to be because of them, are infinitely variable. (Which is why I imagine my road-rage guy got off the freeway shortly after our encounter, lost control of his vehicle, slammed into a telephone pole, woke up in the hospital with amnesia and later became convinced he was Professor Irwin Corey.)

Here’s an exercise: Ask yourself what bumper sticker your character would place on his car. That’s his mask. That’s what he wants people to think of him. Then ask yourself what action the character can take that demonstrates the opposite of the sentiment. Now, what does that tell you about who the character really is?

Work that complexity into your manuscript.

And please, drive sanely.

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How to Write About Negative Leads

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In my writing workshops I talk about three kinds of lead characters: the positive, the negative, and the anti-hero.

The positive lead is the traditional hero. This is someone who operates according to the shared morality of the community. It might be an ordinary man or woman who gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances (e.g., Tell No One). Or, it could be a hero with skills, like Jonathan Grave or Liam Neeson in Taken.

We root for positive leads because they represent us in the fight against evil and bad guys.

The anti-hero is someone who has been divorced from the community for some reason. They usually live according to their own code. The plot involves them being dragged into some trouble happening within the community. The story question then is: will they be reconciled to the group, or once again assume the role of outcast?

Rick in Casablanca begins the film sticking his “neck out for nobody.” Gradually he is pulled into a Nazi resistance scheme. At the end, he rejoins the community and the war effort. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers comes in from the wilderness and gets involved in finding his niece, who has been taken captive by Comanches. At the end, in one of the most memorable shots in movie history, he once again is consigned to the wilderness again.

Then there is the negative lead. This is someone who is engaged in an enterprise that offends our collective morality. The quintessential example is Ebenezer Scrooge, but also many of the leads in crime and noir fiction, such as Jack in The Vengeful Virgin, a book I wrote about last week. Indeed, some of the most popular fiction out there is about negative leads. Gone Girl anyone?

So what’s the secret to this kind of story? I’ve identified eight motifs in this regard:

  1. The Slow-Motion Car Wreck

You know how people are (including you). You’re on the freeway and there’s a big wreck ahead, even on the other side of the median. Flashing lights and crunched metal. You slow down a bit for a look. It’s human nature.

A book about a negative lead can be like the wreck itself, in slo-mo. I think of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, where the lead, his brother and a friend discover a crashed plane with a big stash of drug money. Should they report it? Or try to keep it? And when they decide to keep it, will they be able to sustain the secret without bringing disaster upon themselves and their loved ones?

I remember reading the book and actually saying out loud, a couple of times, “Don’t do that … please don’t do that!” And then they do it. I had to turn the pages, watching this wreck, hoping against hope that these guys wouldn’t descend further into the darkness.

  1. The Redemption Hope

Another reason to read about a negative lead is hope for their redemption. This is the way it is with Scrooge as he starts to get his angel visitations. It’s also what happens with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

The key to this kind of story is to show us, early on, that the character has the capacity for moral change. With Scrooge, it begins to happen when he is taken to his boyhood past, his loneliness at school. It brings out deep emotion in Scrooge. There’s a heart in there after all! We read on to see if that heart can be warmed again.

With Scarlett, it’s her moxie, her guts, her strength. Like when she defies polite society by dancing with Rhett while she’s supposed to be in mourning. She uses her spunk selfishly most of the time. If only she can turn it in the right direction before it’s too late! If she does, frankly, we would give a damn. So we read on.

  1. Inner Turmoil

Sometimes, seeing what the wrong choices do to the inside of a character makes us want to find out what happens. Witnessing the emotional turmoil of a character automatically triggers our interest, because we experience it ourselves all the time.

In The Vengeful Virgin, Jack Ruxton is a knot of conflicting emotions once he falls for the alluring Shirley Angela and the two hatch a plot to murder the old man she cares for. Brewer gives us the insides of Jack throughout, as in:

Doom. You recognize Doom easily. It’s a feeling and a taste, and it’s black, and it’s very heavy. It comes down over your head, and wraps tentacles around you, and sinks long dirty fingernails into your heart. It has a stink like burning garbage. Doom. I sat up all night with the lights on. Waiting.

Passages like that kept me going, even though what Jack was doing was immoral. There’s a sort of catharsis in seeing massive inner conflict in someone else. We can put our own on hold while we’re reading!

  1. Comeuppance

This idea applies when we read about a real crumb. We want him to get his just desserts. He deserves to go down.

Once again, I turn to The Vengeful Virgin, because there’s a point in the middle of the book where any sympathy we might have for Jack is wiped out. His jilted lover, Grace, keeps hounding him, and getting in the way of his plans with Shirley. Grace is not a bad person, just stupidly in love with the guy.

She surprises him one night outside Shirley’s house. He’s so outraged he hits her. Hard. Staggers her. Then hits her again. Then twists her arm behind her back and shoves her into her car.

This disturbing turn makes us want to see Jack get what he deserves. (**Spoiler alert** … if you plan to read The Vengeful Virgin, skip down to #5.)

In an ending that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, Jim Thompson, Jack Ruxton, guilty of two murders, is shot by a drunken and envious Shirley, who then turns the gun on herself. She dies, but he survives, only to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to the electric chair. The last lines:

Yes, that’s how it was. Grace, she was always burning. Then Shirley and I began burning. And then the money burned. And now there was time to burn.

Then, after there was no more time, they would burn me.

 

  1. Love Conquers All

With a hat tip to Huey Lewis, there’s just something about the power of love. Especially in noir. In films like Gun Crazy and They Live By Night, doomed lovers grab our hearts even though we know it won’t end well. It can’t. In the moral universe of noir, you pay for your sins.

James M. Cain’s classic The Postman Always Rings Twice bonds us to the murderous couple. Drawn first by lust, by the time the book gets to the end, the two are truly part of each other. There’s poignancy on the last page as Frank Chambers awaits his appointment with the electric chair (Old Sparky is a familiar last stop in these books!):

Here they come. Father McConnell says prayers help. If you’ve got this far, send up one for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.

 

  1. At least he’s better than the other crumbs

One of the hardest of the hardboiled writers was Richard Stark, pen name of prolific author Donald Westlake. He created Parker—thief, killer, heist man. Not a shred of sentimentality in this guy. So why do we root for him? In the first book, The Hunter, Parker has been double-crossed and left for dead after a heist. He goes after the money he’s owed, taking on “the outfit” (the crime syndicate) to get it back. Not the whole stash, you understand. Just his half of it.

In other words, compared to the other criminals involved, Parker’s cause is “just.” It’s a remarkable feat, which is why no less than seven movies have been made about this character (the two best are Point Blank and Payback}.

  1. Such a charmer

Tom Ripley, the protagonist of several novels by Patricia Highsmith, has been described as “charming, literate, and a monster” (Roger Ebert). Also “a likable psychopath.” Talk about a challenge! Yet Highsmith pulls it off.

  1. Will They Get Away With It?

Finally, we sometimes read or watch a criminal caper story and actually find ourselves hoping, just a little (or maybe even a lot), that the negative leads get away with it.

My favorite film example is The Asphalt Jungle. Directed by John Huston, the film is about a group of thieves coming together to pull off a big heist. There’s a sympathy factor in operation for each of these desperate men, and you find yourself pulling for them even as the cops pull the net tighter and tighter. It’s really one of the great crime films of all time, with a memorable early appearance by Marilyn Monroe.

Okay! Let’s open this up. What’s your favorite book or movie about a negative lead? What made it work for you?

***

 

BTW, if you want to get in on the ground floor of a series with a hero, try ROMEO’S RULES

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