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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?
Jodie 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!