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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Let No Good Tension Go Unstretched

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my great movie-going experiences was watching Psycho in high school in an auditorium during a storm. The place was packed. The mood was right. And at various points in the film people in the audience screamed their heads off, which greatly added to the atmosphere.

I’m glad my first exposure to the movie was not on TV. I got to see it uncut (which is more than we can say for Janet Leigh after the shower scene). But more important, I got the full effect of the suspense without commercial interruption.

When Vera Miles started walking toward the house, the audience shrieked. Most people were shouting Don’t go in there! Stop! NOOO! My skin erupted in a million pin pricks.

Of course, Vera didn’t listen. And it seemed like forever for her to get inside the place, and then down to the basement to meet, ahem, Mrs. Bates.

The screaming did not stop during the entire sequence. The anticipation was unbearable. The surprise-twist-climax actually changed my body chemistry. I didn’t sleep right for a week.

Which demonstrates why Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense. What he did better than any other director was stretch the tension. He never let a thrilling moment escape with a mere whimper. He played it for all it was worth.

And so should fiction writers. Learning how to stretch tension is one of the best ways to keep your readers flipping pages, losing sleep and buying your books.

I first became aware of this a long time ago, when I was trying to learn to the craft. I’d read somewhere that Dean Koontz took his career up a notch with his novel Whispers. He has a scene early on, all inside a house, with a would-be rapist stalking the lead character. It goes for 17 pages!

How did he do it? Beat by ever-loving beat. Alternating action, thoughts, dialogue, description and more action. Each beat is played out in full. Almost like slow motion. Which is a good way to think about stretching tension. Focus in on each step in the scene and expand it. The expansion becomes story discovery, which is exactly what you want. You can always scale back the scene later, if you so desire.

Now, usually you’re going to find these high-tension places in the middle and toward the end of your novel. But don’t forget about the opening. And here I’m not just talking about mere action. I’m talking about a tense situation stretched to the limit.

If you’d like to see what I’m talking about, check out the first five chapters of one of Lee Child’s best, Gone Tomorrow. The tension starts on page one and stretches all the way to a shocking climax 26 pages later! Click on “Preview” below if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Try this: ID the three scenes in your manuscript with the highest degree of tension. Can you stretch them out even further? Can you add emotional beats? Inner thoughts? A memory? More action? Dialogue? Can you force the reader to read one, two or three more pages in order to find out what happens next?

Note: This is not in conflict with previous advice about writing tight. We are talking about adding beats which increase reading pleasure by delaying resolution of tension. Indeed, such beats should be the tightest writing in the book!

Comments may now commence. Shower at your own risk. 

***

Speaking of tension, today I release a new story, a contemporary suspense with a twist ending. There’s room for you to hop on board! Details are on my Patreon page.

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Playing to Your Strengths

Owl-In-Flight

My wife Lisa’s greatest joy — after her husband, of course, and our ungrateful, unappreciative daughter — is her enjoyment of wild birds. We (well, she) has a couple of large, impervious-to-squirrels feeders set up outside of our kitchen window, and Lisa will spend hours photographing the birds that come to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of seed that is there for the taking. One characteristic of birds, however, is that they are slobs. They drop seed, they leave husks, and…well, you know the rest. We as a result get a nightly show in the form of nocturnal creatures gathering at night beneath the feeders in a heartwarming tableau. The opossums are first to arrive. They get there early to begin eating the seed that has been left on the ground. They eventually, however, are rudely shoved aside by the raccoons, the neighborhood bully boys who push aside the opossums as if they aren’t even there. The collective attitude of the masked bandits changes quickly, however, when the skunks arrive. Their “outta my way, kid” demeanor quickly changes to, “Oh, my, hello, Mr. Skunk! How nice to see you! We’ve been saving this pile of seed just for you.” Skunks are just so gentle and shy and cute as they walk up and begin eating. They don’t take any mess, however. I did see a young raccoon, one who apparently didn’t get the memo, try to nudge a skunk out of its way. The skunk engaged in some non-violent resistance, turning around and putting his tail up, resulting in three raccoons setting new distance and reaction records for standing side jumps. I didn’t know raccoons could jump sideways. They apparently can, if properly motivated.

What do those cute vignettes have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually. After you’ve been writing for a while, you’re going to get the sense of what works and what doesn’t for you. Write what works for you. If you are good at writing action scenes but poor at writing dialogue, go with the explosions and karate and make you characters strong and silent. If you’re not able to write a convincing love scene without embarrassing yourself, don’t entangle your character in anything other than barb wire. If you can write great sex scenes but drop the thread on complex mysteries, keep the mystery simple and secondary to the amorous scenes in the bedroom or elsewhere. Our friend the opossum’s main strengths are to convincingly play dead (we’ve all run into folks like that, haven’t we, heh heh) and get places early. If you are good at writing action scenes, start with a strong one and jump from one to another. Your story may be best served by letting the plot drive it. As far as the skunk goes, we’re talking cute but dangerous. “Dangerous” isn’t too strong a word; making that midnight run out to a Sam’s Club for several five-gallon cans of tomato juice to erase the scent of skunk spray will make a believer out of you. So…the character is going to drive your story. Cute but dangerous? Think of Jack Reacher as played by, uh, Tom Cruise. If you are blessed with the ability to let plot and characters drive your novel, you’re like a raccoon. You can sense your story’s weaknesses and strengths, and sense when something can play out a bit or, alternatively, when it’s time to wrap it up.
Which animal are you when you write? One of the above? Or another? And why?…oh, and the animal at the top of my humble offering today? To paraphrase Raymond Chandler…”What. The owl? Oh. I forgot about him.” Not really. Owls are skunks’ natural predators. The reason? Owls don’t have olfactory glands.

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Being the Next…

Miami_Vice

I was for no particular reason thinking about the Miami Vice television series on Friday afternoon. You’ve probably at least heard of Miami Vice, if you haven’t seen an episode.Television producer Michael Mann originally conceived the idea behind the iconic series during a brainstorming/brainstreaming session in which he wrote the words “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. The audience didn’t necessarily tune in entirely for the music, but they sure didn’t turn away, either. Mann gave viewers a forty-eight minute music video featuring multiple songs, violence, some PG-rated sex, and a lot of style, all from the viewpoint of Crockett and Tubbs, a couple of Miami-Dade County drug enforcement agents.  If your dad or, uh, grandfather has a white linen sport coat in the back of his closet it may well mean that he was rockin’ his best Sonny Crockett back in the day.

cop rock

Now. Have you ever heard of…Cop Rock? It was pitched as the next Miami Vice, and featured dramatic episodes with a cast ensemble who, in the middle of a squad room, a murder scene, or whatever, would…burst into song and dance. It is almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of any of the very few episodes of Cop Rock that aired without hoping that the cast, scriptwriters, showrunners, and the like would…burst into flame. Just kidding. I think.

I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. p.g. sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will. 

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model.

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Getting to Jack Reacher, or Someone Like Him

reacher said nothing

I am reading an extremely interesting book which will see the light of day next week — Tuesday, November 24, 2015, to be exact — everywhere books are sold. It is titled REACHER SAID NOTHING: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. It is written by Andy Martin, who teaches at Cambridge but is nonetheless capable of writing a fun book, and more so, a fun book about the writing process. What occurred is that Martin approached Child via email in August 2014 about writing a book that would take the reader from the very beginning of the process by which Child does what he does so well to the very end. Martin’s timing was perfect, given that Child was about to start writing what ultimately became MAKE ME, his latest Jack Reacher novel.

 

I’m not going to present my review of REACHER SAID NOTHING now — you’ll have to go here next week over the Thanksgiving weekend to see that — but I can tell you that if you have ever thought of writing a novel you need to get a copy of REACHER SAID NOTHING and sit down and read it. You’ll feel better about the process, for sure. I can assure you that, whatever problem you may have had with completing your work, Child has had it as well, and yes, still has it and works to overcome it year in and year out. You will find within the pages of REACHER SAID NOTHING how he does it, as well as the very first thing that Child did when he started writing the very first Reacher book, lo those many years ago. Child utilizes many tools — copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes among them — but you don’t have to have move into Starbucks or have access to a secret stash of Chesterfield Kings to have similar results, with “similar results” being finishing your book, and then writing another, and another. And no, I’m not going to give away the specifics. Martin gave up a year of his life following Child around with  proximity and access that would make a proctologist jealous, and then compiled it all into something readable, so it would be neither fair nor right. I will tell you in one general word, however, how Child does what he does: discipline. That’s it. He sits down (among other things) and gets it done. The process of doing that is a part of Martin’s book, and so far, that book is an entertaining hodgepodge of an account consisting of emails, diary entries, and transcripts of conversations.

 

Will reading REACHER SAID NOTHING help you to write a bestseller or a critically acclaimed work? No. No. No. Life is not fair. Equity is not equal. If you want justice go to theology school and cross your fingers; maybe you’ll get it. But, if you model your work ethic after Child, you’ll finish your book, The rest is a combination of luck and ability and timing. As far as writing goes, remember that just because you like sausage doesn’t mean you want to make it. Have at it, by all means, but know what you are getting into. And if you still want to by the time you finish REACHER SAID NOTHING, by all means: start, and never stop until the job is done.

 

From my house to yours: Happy Thanksgiving! I’m old and grumpy and experiencing a health issue that is more an inconvenience than a herald of mortality but it’s a reminder that the sand is running, ever running, through the hourglass. Still, I have much to be thankful for, and you would be very high on that list, for stopping by The Kill Zone and spending a few minutes with us. Thank you.

 

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To Age, or Not at All

angel headstone

(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?

 

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