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.”