Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Creative Character Descriptions

I’ve spent most of my time during the pandemic getting my next book ready for publication. To be honest, the only thing different about this particular time of my life is my concentration isn’t worth a damn. I keep switching back and forth to the online newspapers to see what’s happening, putting my work on hold as I get lost in the confusion. I have managed to finish the book, though I’m still nitpicking it.

When our brilliant webmistress, Elle Carter Neal, put my book, The Scent of Murder, up on the blog as a Friday Read, it got me thinking about how to describe our characters without really describing them in the usual way. Then, as I was listening to an audio in the car, another example caught my attention. That’s when I thought about how writers describe their characters. In many cases, a few words can tell the reader more than a full paragraph. Some writers like John Sandford, of the Lucas Davenport Prey series, describe what every character looks like and what he wears on the first meeting. I’ve always found that distracting. Yes, it gives the reader a picture of the character, but it stops the action, especially at the beginning of a book when it’s important to draw the reader into the story. I prefer a character’s visual image develops in the same way as his/her personality.

The example I heard in the car was from Memory Man, the first book in the series, by David Baldacci.

“He’d pulled into the driveway of the modest two-story vinyl-sider that was twenty-five years old and would take at least that long to pay off. The rain had slicked the pavement, and as his size fourteen boots made contact, he slipped a bit before traction was gained.”

Size fourteen-size boot says it all. He’s tall, probably a big man. We know he’s a cop, but it also hints that he might have money problems. Baldacci follows it by our character describing another person in the scene as “a big burly guy, like him.” We have a picture of Amos, big, burly, with Shaquille O’Neal size feet. (Not that I would deign to critique Baldacci, but I would have written, ‘he slipped a bit before he gained traction,’ in keeping the sentence more active.)

My book Mind Games begins when our heroine, Diana, describes what other people think of her, and she rattles off every synonym that defines a cheat. She thinks to herself:

“They were all right. She was a fraud. And a damn good one too. A thirty-three-year-old, five-foot-two bundle of fraud.”

We see Diana on stage, get a slight vision of her, know her age, but on she goes with her act without much more.

In book four, the one that Elle chose to highlight, she tells the reader who might not have read book one, more of what she looks like, and in doing so, she also describes her love-partner-in-crime, Ernie Lucier. They’re walking in New Orleans’ Jackson Square:

“Diana struggled to keep up. “Hey, put on the brakes, will ya?”
He slowed his pace. “Sorry. I forgot you take girly steps.”
She came to an abrupt stop, hands on her hips. “Wait one minute. You’re six-two; I’m a foot shorter. They’re not girly steps, they’re five-feet-two steps.”

Mirror descriptions are kind of a cop-out, but Michael Connelly does it well in the first Harry Bosch book, The Black Echo. Harry’s also a cop.

“He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth without toothpaste: he was out and had forgotten to go by the store. He dragged a comb through his hair and stared at his red-rimmed, forty-year-old eyes, for a long moment. Then he studied the gray hairs that were steadily crowded out the brown in his curly hair. Even the mustache was going gray. He had begun to see flecks of gray in the sink when he shaved. He touched a hand to his chin but decided not to shave. He left his house then without changing even his tie. He knew his client wouldn’t mind.”

No eye color, no size or weight, no description of what he’s wearing, but we get a picture of Bosch as not only turning gray but growing old before his time. We feel his exhaustion.

I’ve used offbeat descriptions often. Here are a couple from my book, Hooked, that the female protag uses to describe the male protag, Lincoln Walsh.

“The man might have been a New York cop, but his taste in suits was European and expensive. … To make matters worse, or maybe better, he was damn good looking. Big, brown eyes, with a face resembling those on old Roman coins. His name, Walsh, spoke of Ireland, but she’d bet there was a Mediterranean gene hidden somewhere in his DNA.” That’s the only description of him in the book, but if the reader knows anything about Roman history, she has an idea what he looks like.

In my new book, as yet unpublished, my antagonist is a man of many disguises, but without them, he’s anonymous looking. My hero is sure that when he’s not face-to-face with the man, he would be unable to describe him.

I love creative descriptions. Anyone have a great example from either your book or someone else’s?


Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

17 comments :

  1. I love the fact that you wrote a short story about an advice columnist. I put one as a minor character in my latest book. Now I'm thinking about her being the protag in a short story. As for descriptions, I was surprised to see that a "very famous writer" used that old mirror trick. Since I began writing *** years ago, all the advice about writing descriptions has included the theory to never, ever use that "device." But, I agree with you. It worked well for Mr. Connelly. Great post!

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  2. I think you have me confused with someone else. I never wrote a short story with an advice columnist, but it's a good idea. Yes, Connelly can pull it off, but he's Connelly. It was his first book, so there's that. Maybe it became a no-no long after.

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  3. James Lee Burke's descriptions are always interesting. You can read the opening of Purple Cane Road and see a good one.

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    1. No one does it better than Burke.

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    2. Word of mouth (or blogs) is clearly the best marketing device, because after reading two comments from authors I respect, I went and read the opening to Purple Cane Road. Now I have to own the book, because clearly you are correct about James Lee Burke's descriptions :) xoxo

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  4. No examples at the moment, but you've given me a lot of food for thought. Great post, Polly! Definitely a keeper. :-)

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    1. Food for thought is a good thing. Thanks, Linda.

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  5. I love a thirty-three year old, five-foot two bundle of fraud. In that one phrase we learn so much about the character -- she's young, small (dynamite comes in small packages) and she's a liar. We don't know her good points, but what a great start through one character's POV. Great blog, Polly!

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    1. Thanks, Donnell. I like saying as much as I can without saying quite enough, leaving the reader putting her own picture of the character in her mind. I know exactly what Diana looks like, but then I wrote her.

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  6. Good post, Polly. I'm done with a first draft of my new book and into the editing phase. I think I've done too little to describe my heroine. Since it's written in her voice, everyone else is covered. No mirrors for me.

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    1. One of the problems of writing in first person is not being able for the character to describe herself, so it's left for someone else. That can be a challenge that I know you're up for, Linda. Though I can't be positive, I might have a character look into a mirror in one of my books. Now I'll have to think about that one.

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  7. I read the advice once to not describe your characters in such a way that any actor or actress couldn't play them. I do hair and eye color way too much, but do like to find that one characteristic, that one descriptive word or phrase that lets the readers draw their own pictures. Thanks for such a great post!

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    1. Interesting, though in a film one doesn't have to describe the character. S/he is right there. Except for Jack Reacher. I have a few characters where their eye color is their defining feature. I even tinkered with the eyes on the cover of my short story, The Last Heist, to prove my point.

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  8. I find it easier to describe series character succintly after the first book. Here's a description of two minor characters, a pair of deputies, in my Dreamwalker series, from All Done With It: "Virgil Burkhead and Ronnie Oliver dropped the crime scene tape they’d been installing and swaggered over, good old boys, the pair of them. Virg was the taller of the two well-fed, brown-eyed men, and he often spoke for both of them." Although now I see that I ended both sentences with "in them". It's always something!

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    1. That made me laugh, Maggie. Full disclosure: Maggie is my critique partner, and she just sent me back a critique of my mini-synopsis for my new book. Glad she catches all those repetitions on my work.

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  9. One of the best character descriptions that comes to mind is one my co-writer on screenplays did a long time ago. "From the time he colored on the walls when he was five, Marco knew he wanted to be an artist."

    It doesn't tell us about his physical attributes, but I've always thought it was some good characterization.

    Love the post and all the great examples, Polly.

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  10. Thanks, Maryann. This is my third time to reply, so let's hope this goes through. I shall copy it before publishing.

    Your example tells me that not only is your character an artist but he's determined and focused. Writers don't always have to describe eye or hair color.

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