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?


Blackthorne Inc. Bundle 1A brief moment of promotion–thanks to a BookBub Featured Deal, the box set of the first three novels in my Blackthorne, Inc. series is on special this week only for 99 cents instead of $6.99. Ends the 17th. Available at Kobo, Amazon, Apple & Nook.

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.

Advanced Scene Technique: The Jump Cut

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

A while ago I wrote about the perils of the eating scene, how to rescue them from dullness by injecting a few forms of conflict.

Most of us include restaurant or sitting-down-for-coffee scenes in our books. They are a natural part of life and provide an opportunity to delve a little deeper into relationships. Those relationships can be between friends, family, or potential lovers.

An eating scene can also be a “breather” in an otherwise relentlessly-paced thriller. It helps sometimes to slow down the pace. The trick, of course, is not to make things too slow.

One technique to keep these scenes from bogging down is called the jump cut. This is a screenwriting term referring to a scene that jumps slightly ahead in time while staying in the same location. It’s used to excise irrelevant or otherwise dull material, so only the “good stuff” remains.

John Sandford uses this technique in his thriller Winter Prey. The hero, Lucas Davenport, is an ex-cop now living in Wisconsin. The local cops ask him to to take a look at a murder scene. There he encounters a small-town doctor named Weather Karkinnen. She is smart and straight-talking. Naturally, there’s a bit of a spark between them.

Several chapters later they see each other again. Davenport asks Weather to have dinner with him. She suggests a local joint that offers a wine choice—red or white, with breadsticks on the table. As they walk to the restaurant from the parking lot there is a small interchange of backstory material.

Then we jump cut, via white space, to their getting seated in a booth and exchanging a little more information, but deeper this time, as they are beginning to trust each other. It’s a long conversation that follows, punctuated by jump cuts. After the white space, a new paragraph begins with ALL CAPS. It looks like this:

AND LATER, OVER walleye in beer batter:
“You can’t hold together a heavy duty relationship when you’re in medical school and working to pay for it,” Weather said. He enjoyed watching her work with her knife, taking the walleye apart. Like a surgeon…

 

AFTER A CARAFE of wine: “Do you worry about the people you’ve killed?” She wasn’t joking. No smile this time.
“They were hair balls, every one of them.” …

 

“CARR SEEMS LIKE a decent sort,” Lucas said.
“He is, very decent,” Weather agreed….

 

“YOU DON’T ACT like a doctor,” Lucas said.
“You mean because I gossip and flirt?” …

And so we get through a long restaurant conversation without needless filler. It flows nicely, the conversation getting more intimate as it goes along, so by the end of the chapter we’re pretty sure these two will soon be lovers.

It’s also a nice break in what is essentially a police procedural.

White space on the page is your friend. It helps harried readers hang in there. So when you write a scene that is a long conversation, consider:

  1. Injecting tension by giving the characters different agendas.
  2. Adding conflict by giving at least one of the characters a fear or worry about something (something they don’t want to reveal to the other).
  3. Cutting filler by using the jump cut.

For a hilarious movie example of the jump cut, here is a scene from the Preston Sturges classic, The Lady Eve. Barbara Stanwyck plays a con woman who schemes to marry the straight-laced heir to a fortune, played by Henry Fonda. She doesn’t expect to fall for him, but she does.

But when Fonda discovers her duplicity, he pretends he never loved her, that he was playing her for a sucker. To get revenge, Stanwyck comes back into his life as a woman named “Eve” and wins his heart. They get married. On their honeymoon night, on a train, Stanwyck completes her plan by telling Fonda about a previous marriage when she was sixteen, to a stable boy named Angus. Fonda is shaken, but forgiving … until she starts dropping the names of several other former husbands! (Press play then move your cursor off the clip. Enjoy!)

 

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?