Character Descriptions – Learn from the Pros!

Jodie RennerThrilled to have editor and author Jodie Renner with us today. If you don’t yet know Jodie, I’ll fast track things by saying PUT HER BOOKS ON YOUR CHRISTMAS WISH LIST! This is a longer post, so I’ll let you dive right into this absolute treasure trove of “how-to” on showing character description.

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In my editing of fiction, I find my clients often tend to over-describe characters, with too much emphasis on specific visual details. Readers like to be active participants in the reading experience. They enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of piecing things together and drawing their own conclusions about characters.

Show, don’t tell.

Rather than giving readers a long, detailed description of a character’s height, build, facial features, and clothing, it’s best to just show the “essence” of the character, including his personality or state of mind, as perceived by the viewer, through a few well-chosen details. Then let the readers imagine the rest themselves.

For example, in James Scott Bell’s novella, Force of Habit, spunky, rebellious nun Sister J arrives at a house looking for an unhappy little girl who was kicked out of her school. A man answers the door. Bell shows us Sister J’s immediate impression with a few clever, well-chosen words:

A man of thirty or thirty-five, swarthy, a face like a belt sander, answered.

“A face like a belt sander” says it all, doesn’t it!  Then, a few paragraphs down, we see how belligerent he is to Sister J’s efforts to help his young niece:

He set his jaw like a fist ready to jab.

And here’s how Nora Roberts describes the appearance of a stranger, in Hot Rocks:

A heroic belch of thunder followed the strange little man into the shop. He glanced around apologetically, as if the rude noise were his responsibility rather than nature’s, and fumbled a package under his arm so he could close a black-and-white-striped umbrella.

Both umbrella and man dripped, somewhat mournfully, onto the neat square of mat just inside the door… He stood where he was, as if not entirely sure of his welcome.

We readers might all visualize this man a bit differently, to suit our own ideas of what he should look like, but we get an immediate impression of his timidity and hesitancy, which is all we really need at this point.

Show the POV character’s feelings and reactions to the character he/she is observing.

Also, work in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the character. Is the narrator impressed? Intimidated? Fearful? Attracted to them?

For example, Brad Parks, in The Girl Next Door, describes the first-person narrator’s feelings about a love interest:

…in addition to being fun, smart, and quick-witted—in a feisty way that always kept me honest—she’s quite easy to look at, with never-ending legs, toned arms, curly brown hair, and eyes that tease and smile and glint all at the same time.

Appeal to the senses.

Also, to bring the character and scene alive for the readers, evoke as many of the senses as are appropriate for the situation, not just visual impressions. Is their perfume cloying, or their body odor overpowering? Is their voice high-pitched or raspy? Their hand cold and clammy?

James Lee Burke’s protagonist, Detective Dave Robicheaux, meets a penitentiary guard in his novel, The Neon Rain. Notice how Burke mixes it up and appeals to several senses.

His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder.

And from Sandra Brown, in Smoke Screen:

Raley stepped into the one-room cabin. It smelled of fried pork and the mouse-gnawed Army blanket on the cot in the corner

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness and find the old man. He was sitting at a three-legged table, hunched over a cup of coffee like a dog guarding a hard-won bone, staring into the snowy screen of a black-and-white television. Ghostly images flickered in and out. There was no audio except for a static hiss.

Give an overall emotional impression, rather than a lot of specific factual details.

When we first see or meet someone, we don’t take a detailed mental inventory from top to toe of their height, build, hairstyle and color, eyes, facial features, and what they’re wearing. Usually one or two features stand out and grab our attention, along with obvious aspects of their personality and our immediate emotional reaction to them.

Dennis Lehane gives an immediate impression of two sharply contrasting people in a few choice words in his novel, A Drink Before the War. The narrator has walked into a bar and is being introduced to two senators.

Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.

Brian Paulson was rake thin, with smooth hair the color of tin and a wet fleshy handshake…. His greeting was a nod and a blink, befitting someone who’d stepped out of the shadows only momentarily.

Reveal the character’s personality, goals, and intentions by their actions and words, rather than telling the readers what they’re like.

Let’s go back to James Lee Burke and The Neon Rain. Detective Dave Robicheaux is at a penitentiary to visit a man on death row. A guard opens the cell door for Dave, who studies the condemned man.

His wiry gray and black hair was dripping with sweat, and his face was the color and texture of old paper. He looked up at me from where he was seated on his bunk, and his eyes were hot and bright and moisture was beaded across his upper lip. He held a Camel cigarette between his yellowed fingers, and the floor around his feet was covered with cigarette butts.

Instead of telling us the prisoner was nervous, Burke shows this subtly and masterfully with well-chosen sensory and visual details. Burke continues a few lines down:

His hands clutched his thighs and he looked at the floor, then back at me. I saw him swallow.

How scared you ever been?” he said.

Burke paints such a powerful picture with an economy of words, that we definitely feel this man’s terror at facing the electric chair, without Burke telling us “he was scared” or “he was terrified.”

So, when introducing new characters, remember to show their essence through actions, words, and attitude, rather than telling too much. Also, be sure to filter your character descriptions through the mood, attitude, and reactions of the viewer, the POV character for the scene.

Readers and writers: Do you have any tips or examples of powerful character descriptions to share, either from your book or from a favorite author?

imagesJodie Killer ThrillerJodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books (& e-books) to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power
(Silver Medal winner in FAPA Book Awards, 2013). For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

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Jodie also posts regularly at a number of writing blogs. One of them, The Kill Zone, is hosting Becca today and letting her natter on about using crises and choices to show your character’s true nature. Or, if you’re in the mood for something a little more uplifting, you can check out her post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations on the origins of positive attributes and how to mine them for your own characters. Cheers!

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31 Responses to Character Descriptions – Learn from the Pros!

  1. Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Writing: Episode #13 - The OutRamp

  2. Julie Musil says:

    What great examples! Thanks, Jodie. I bought Style that Sizzles and plan to use it with my revision.

    This post reminds me of advice my agent gave me in several sections of my manuscript…”Add more fleas.”

  3. Rosi says:

    Great post as usual. I appreciate all the wonderful examples. I will be looking for her books.

  4. A.M. Khalifa says:

    Excellent post, Jodie!

    Here’s one of mine. This guy’s a low-level criminal operative. The gopher.

    Minutes later, a huge man of mixed Asian and Hispanic descent sauntered by and sat down with no expression. His hair long, tangled and greasy. The funk of his long-term commitment never to shower had arrived at the table well before him.

  5. D.F. Barrett says:

    Very interesting post, Jodie. Super. Thanks. I’m writing short stories at the moment and short, succinct descriptions are just what I’m aiming for.

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, D.F. I’m glad my tips are what you’ve been looking for for your short stories! Good luck, and I look forward to seeing them in print!

  6. Outstanding post. I tend to write boring descriptions of my characters in first drafts, but when I go back to revise, I know them all so much better and I’m able to take out the “red hair and blue eyes” and replace it with something fresher and more original.

    I have trouble coming up with great similes, although I think they make for the best descriptions. Anyone know any good methods, or articles on how to learn that particular skill?

    • Jodie Renner says:

      That’s a great method, Leslie. Just get the facts down on the first draft, then, when you’re fresh and feeling creative, tweak the character descriptions to reveal more about their personality and the POV character’s impressions of them.

      About creating fresh, original similes, I don’t know of a resource offhand. Does anyone else?

    • A.M. Khalifa says:

      Great question, Tom!

      One possible way is the POV’s introspection about the passing of time and how they’ve changed in the interim. Of course this works best when the chunk of time in between is of relevance to the plot, and the physical changes telling of the character.

      But I am sure Jodie’s future post will be loaded to god nuggets!

  7. tom combs says:

    Great tips and wonderful examples.
    As you suggest – it’s more than listing physical traits/appearance; it’s a revelation of aspects of the character’s core.
    James Lee Burke is, in my opinion, unsurpassed in his gift. A few masterfully wrought words and the character is alive in the reader’s mind. All of his books are loaded with incredible character description. Genius!

    Describing one’s POV character is a particular challenge (i.e. the character is introduced in a scene shown through their POV). The mirror or reflection scene has been used frequently and can come across stale or clumsy. Any suggestions/thoughts on describing character when in their POV?
    Thank you!

  8. L.J. Sellers says:

    All good advice. It’s also important, and more difficult, to describe the POV character early in the story. Once readers have an image in mind, you don’t want to mess with it. You can use another character or some self-analysis/criticism from the protag to work it in.

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Excellent idea, LJ! And you’ve partially answered Tom Comb’s question above. You’re both so right about it being more challenging to describe the POV character early on, so readers can get a good handle on what they’re like as close to the beginning as possible.

  9. This is just so good. I’m starting a new book and I will come back to this often. Better still, I’ll print it out! Thanks.

  10. This is a fabulous post!! I struggle with finding a way to show my character’s physical description without the usual boring hair and eye color, weight, height, etc. This gave me so many ideas and I can’t wait to put them in use!!

  11. Great post Jodie. Physical description is one of the hardest things to master, and it’s really about quick and accurate fingernail details so readers can fill in the rest. Showing them through what they do is such a great way to characterize and drop in a few added details, and then you avoid the giant lump of description. :) Thanks so much for visiting us here!

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Thanks for hosting another one of my craft-of-fiction articles on your excellent blog, Angela!

      Have a wonderful holiday season! :-)

    • James David Ellen (call me David) says:

      Ms. Ackerman,
      I just got your three ‘thesaurus’ books for writers in the mail and have looked at all three enough to know they will be a great help.

      The article covering ‘sleight of hand’ in this forum is also very helpful. It will help me improve on my scene where a ‘monte’ sharp meets up with Fox and Bull (about whom we corresponded at Writer’s Village).

      • I am thrilled the books and our posts are helpful to you! How great that sleight of hand is an entry that will be particularly helpful. :) (Sorry for the late response–I have been away on holidays and am just back trying to catch up on the tsunami of email and whatnot. Have a great weekend!)

        Angela

  12. Anna Labno says:

    Jodie,

    It’s a great post. I try to use fresh images. I substitute nouns and verbs for more specific ones.

    Also, I try to read one or two memoirs of the victims since they are more keen to their surroundings under oppression.

    Blessings,

    Anna

  13. Wonderful post. Thank you for this. I’m in the middle of revisions and you’ve given me some very helpful tips to improve me characters.

  14. Jodie Renner says:

    Thanks so much, Angela and Becca, for having me as a guest again, this time on your fabulous new blog! It’s a pleasure to join you and your followers again.

  15. Fantastic tips on how to describe characters. Now if I could only write them as vividly.

    • Jodie Renner says:

      Don’t worry about comparing yourself to some of these writers, Natalie – especially James Lee Burke! That would be discouraging for most writers!
      Just write what you, Natalie, do best. Good luck with your WIP!
      - Jodie

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