Monday, June 27, 2011

Character Description: How Much Do You Want?

Inside, a man sat behind a laminated wood desk tapping away on a computer keyboard with thick, stubby fingers, his eyes glued to the flat panel screen. The walls of the office were covered with framed photographs of canals and dams from different eras. A descriptive title under the frame of one read “Fresno Scrapers.” It showed mustached-men posing by a horse-drawn contraption with a long metal blade while standing in a wide, shallow dirt trench he assumed was an early canal. There were pictures of big dams, little dams, dirt canals, and cement-lined canals. Lawless couldn’t see anything personal on the walls or desk.
McFrazier glanced up and jumped when he saw Lawless.
“Sorry. Didn’t see you come in.”
He stood and reached over the desk to shake hands. Ralph McFrazier was a stout, hairy man with thick arms and wide shoulders, dressed for summer in an open-collar short-sleeved white cotton shirt and lightweight cotton pants. Lawless imagined something ugly but comfortable on his feet, like Clark’s; he didn’t look like a loafer man. He had a full beard, heavy eyebrows, and bristly hair on top of his head. Thick, dark curly hair covered his forearms and the back of his fingers, tickling Lawless. More dark hair burst out of his shirt at his throat, reminding Lawless of the way a plant will curl and twist to get more of itself into the sunlight.
“Ralph McFrazier,” he said as they shook hands. His voice was gruff, and Lawless thought he might be smiling but it was difficult to tell through the hair.
“Detective Daniel Lawless. Nice to meet you, Mr. McFrazier.” Lawless expected to have his hand crushed, but McFrazier’s grip was soft, almost effeminate.
“Call me Ralph. Mr. McFrazier was my father. Sit down.” He waved a furry arm at a worn chair behind Lawless and sat back down. He talked in short bursts, like a machine gun.
“I’d like to talk to you about Jose Sanchez,” Lawless said, pulling out his notepad. 
“Yes. Terrible thing. What happened?”
“We’re not sure yet. The coroner’s doing the autopsy today. We hope to know more.” 
“No clue yet?”
“Afraid not.” Lawless found himself talking like McFrazier, and didn’t like it. “I understand he worked for you.”
“Somewhere down the line. His direct supervisor is Jake Franklin. He can tell you more.” 
Something beeped: McFrazier glanced at his computer screen and hit a key. The beeping stopped.
“Can you tell me what he was doing out there so early?”
“Can’t tell for sure. Probably checking a gate.” 
“Gate? What kind of gate?”
“Irrigation gate. Lets the water out. They get stuck. The farmers complain.” McFrazier turned his palms up, shrugged, and rolled his eyes.
“What tools does he use?”
“Wrench. Drill. Small stuff.”
“Does he use a chainsaw, anything like that?”
McFrazier frowned. “No. He doesn’t work on trees.” He looked at his watch, barely visible through his arm hair, and said, “Lunch time. Got an appointment. See Franklin. He can tell you more.”
He stood and stuck out his hand again, indicating their talk was over.

Since you’re a reader, let me ask you something: do you like characters whose physical descriptions are laid out for you in the text, or do you like to fill in those details yourself? Or is your preference somewhere in between?

I’ve read all of Johnathon Kellerman’s “Alex Delaware” novels. He likes to describe his main characters’ physical attributes in detail, especially the clothes they wear. He names designers, styles, and brands I’m not familiar with so it doesn’t help me picture the character at all. They’re extra words to me, and frankly, they make me feel a little naive. Like I should know the names of popular designers.

One of my favorite authors, John Sandford, uses a lighter hand when describing his characters. He might spend one paragraph, maybe two sentences.

My wife reads nothing but romance and romance-mystery. It’s tough to get her to read anything but Nora Roberts. She likes some physical description; color of eyes and hair, full or thin lips, height, fit or flabby, etc. She likes to be given mind pictures instead of making them up herself.

I think physical description is very important to the romance genre, and maybe to most genre fiction. And there are lessons to be learned here.

Like John Locke, John Sandford has written that he knows his reader demographic well: mostly women read their books so they write their main male character in a way women find attractive. 

I’ve not read any of Locke’s books but this is what he’s written about his MC Donovan Creed: 
“With my character, Creed, I want to give you a guy who is hard to like, then force you to like him. Women make up 75 to 80% of my audience, and those in my target group get the fact that what Creed really needs in his life is the right woman. My readers are the right woman for a guy like Creed, and when they see him saying something dumb, or making a bad decision, they shake their heads and laugh—because every one of my female readers is smarter than Creed when it comes to relationships, and they know it. They think he’s rough, but worth saving.”
Sandford wrote Lucas to be appealing to women: big and tough, rich with a fancy car, likes women—a lot, has a dark dangerous side (the bad boy), dresses well, etc.

The description of Ralph McFrazier, a minor character in CANALS, at the beginning of this post was too long and largely unnecessary. This is his only scene; why spend so many words describing him? I think I did a better job with the MC in CANALS, Daniel Lawless, giving out snippets of description interwoven through the beginning of the book. 

In the future, while writing genre fiction, I think I’ll describe people with a light hand, maybe try and “show” looks through dialog or action instead of narrative: “After Amber’s eyes adjusted, she saw Grant in the booth. Male heads turned and interested eyes tracked her as she walked through the bar.”


  1. Wonderful post, Ev.

    For a long time I've felt bad about my (lacking) ability to describe things. For some writers, description is like poetry. Or I think of the way Robert Jordan describes clothing, and I'm an epic fail. I decided I'm a minimalist when it comes to description because my brain just doesn't work that way.

    But I've talked to a lot of people about my weakness, and they confess to me that they skip the description anyway. Which author said he tried not to write the parts people skip.

    I like your approach. Personally, I like some description when I read, but I don't mind being allowed to fill the blanks myself. I tend to do that anyway. Especially the description I'm skipping anyway. =D

    I've got a copy of your book. It's going to move toward the top of my list in July, when I finish my editing to submit my ms to my critique group, I'm taking a couple of weeks off just to read. I can't wait.

  2. I skip over a lot of description, too. I love this quote by Elmore Leonard while making an argument against prologues:

    "There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

    If you can do that, you can write.

  3. I definitely prefer a spare hand with description. I am a reader who skips almost all description, character or otherwise. I might read the first line of a descriptive paragraph, but I usually skip more than half of it.

    When writing I try to keep mine down to one sentence when I'm introducing a character. What's the first thing the PoV character notices about him or her? And then add bits as the scene goes on depending on what else the PoV character might make note of.

  4. That was a great post. I think you made the point, about being overly descriptive, really well. I find that Elmore Leonard is right on the mark. I have read 12 of his novels this year. He gives just enough to let me fill in the blanks.

    I like some, and I don't even mind really descriptive parts. Occasionally adding a bunch of detail, once or twice, in a novel, can demonstrate that the location, might be important. I just don't want it all the time.

  5. @Coral: I skip a lot of descriptive parts, too. I recently read Steinbeck's "The Wayward Bus". There's a ton of narrative and character description in that book. A ton. Some of it was tedious but some was brilliant, especially Louie the bus driver. He spent a lot of time on Louie even though he was a minor character but it was so well done I can see why he wouldn't want to chop some of it out. I sped-read through 10-15% of that book but the conclusion was so good I felt my time was well spent.

    @EA: There's room for all kinds of writing. I would be a good exercise to write a book with no description.

  6. This is gonna change how I write...
    Thanks for posting. Good arguments here.

  7. I don't see the point of adding a lot of description, just the bare bones works for me and my mind can fill in the rest. Describing things just for the same of adding flowery words is boring to me. If the description isn't adding anything to the story, cut it.

  8. Good post Everett. I don't like it when the writer goes into detail about what the characters are wearing - why do I care? If there's a reason, then share, otherwise it's a lot of words without impact.

  9. Are we referring only to description of characters or also of scene?

    As far as character description, describe whatever NEEDS to be described. But don't go on and on about it. Readers will form their own mental image, but a few details can clinch it nicely. The hairy arms and hair coming out of the collar of the shirt are all that I needed in the above sample.

    Look at a story like "Hills Like White Elephants." The only description is in reference to the woman's hat. Yet the story does not feel lacking. Remember, while a reader reads, his/her mind is whirring away like a supercomputer, making inferences, drawing conclusions, making guesses, etc. They'll figure it out.

    With regards to main characters, ie the protagonist or POV character, use as little physical description as possible. Readers want to identify with the hero/heroine in the story they're reading, and the more detail you and the author provide on the physicality/appearance of said character, the more you remind the reader that they are NOT this person. This creates a gap, or widens the gap already there, making it less easy to identify with the protagonist.

  10. Everett's post hit a topic I've been fighting with on my first novel attempt. The comments that followed were INSIGHTFUL.

    Introducing character description in a novel had me a writing funk. Now I can move forward with the information shared. Thanks


  11. I spend my days people watching and developing characterization based on who I see. The bag lady pushing the stolen grocery cart, etc. I also try to describe locations in my head for future reference. I know flowery characterizations and detailed scenery can bog down the story but for me they add flavor and put the reader in the scene. It's a Jedi mind trick. Reggie Ridgway New free short story. Loved Everett's post. And Mighty T and Canals

  12. Good post. I, like your wife, do enjoy an occasional Nora Roberts/JD Robb novel. However, IMVHO, like sex scenes, characters need to have something left to the imagination. Everyone sees things differently and allowing the reader to use their imagination makes it a personal voyage through the story, not a guided one.

  13. I agree Nancy. Mostly. I recently read Steinbeck's "The Wayward Bus", where each character is more than fully developed, even the minor characters. It was a bit tedious to get through, although I really enjoyed the book. The last half of the book, that is. My two books have been story-driven, not character-driven.