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Character Descriptions and point of view

Describing Characters

Descriptions are an important tool in a writer's bag of tricks. Done correctly, they incite the readers' imaginations, deepen point of view, and advance the plot and character. But descriptions are hard to do well. Elmore Leonard said his most important advice to writers was to "try to leave out all the parts readers skip." Keep your descriptions lively and focused on advancing plot, character, and establishing point of view and readers will devour them rather than skip them.

Suppose, for example, you're starting a new story and you have the following two character profiles:

Joe is twenty-something, an accountant who is struggling to make ends meet. He's had a hard-scrabble existence with a community college degree in bookkeeping. He's got low self-esteem, and he over-compensates by working out obsessively and studying pre-law in night school.

Jill is an heiress and, like Joe, is twenty-something. Despite her Ivy League degree, no one takes her seriously, so she over-compensates by wearing expensive business suits, keeping a severe, short hairdo, and wearing wire-framed glasses instead of contacts. Her beloved father is dead and her mother has re-married.

The plot involves Jill hiring Joe as the fall-guy in a complex and ruthless plan to swindle her over-bearing step-father. Hmmm...I may actually wind up writing a story or novella based on these ideas.

I find that it's helpful to find a photo that captures the image I have in my mind. When your novel goes into production, the artist assigned to your cover will almost certainly ask you for descriptions or even a stock photo of your main characters. Thus, I will often search for this photo early in the writing process. Having a physical image helps keep me grounded and consistent throughout the creative process. There are many sites where you can peruse for stock images, and you can purchase royalty-free images for a modest price. For example, for Joe I found the image at right on dreamstime.com.openings_html_60ece01d.jpg

While it's inexpensive to purchase a royalty-free image--the one above cost about $1--you can download a copy for free that's overprinted with the site name and logo. The original, uncropped photo of Joe with the Dreamstime logo, is at right. You can't use that for public distribution since you've not paid for the rights, but it would suffice for your personal use while writing your novel. openings_html_m28ab14e8.jpg

Just for completeness, let me include a photo that matches my mental image of Jill, at left.openings_html_3c6ac46f.jpg

All right. So I now have photos of what Joe and Jill look like and what the plot will be. So next I need to describe them. But wait--there's another challenge. Joe and Jill will likely both be point-of-view characters. The first chapter will thus almost certainly use one or the other for the point of view. Thus, I'll need to describe the point of view character while in his or her point of view. That's tricky. Suppose we're going to be in Joe's point of view.

Let's start by listing what we'd like the reader to know about Joe's appearance the first time they meet him. First would be his age and gender. Second might be that he's muscular and obsessive about fitness. Third might be his stubble beard, dark hair, and maybe a mussed appearance to go with being a working stiff.

The challenge, of course, is to achieve this without using a trite contrivance like having him look in a mirror. It's even worse to have the narrator, standing outside the story, describe him. The information about how he looks needs to flow naturally with unfolding events, revealed in the words and deeds of the characters.

Here's an initial attempt.

Joe was lost in the depths old lady Marchan's tax return. With his right hand he scrolled through her deductions, while with his left he flexed an exercise handgrip. He grimaced as a satisfying burn flamed in his forearm, but then the chime built into the doormat told him a customer had entered the office. He hid the grip under a stack of tax forms and turned to face the door. The new arrival was a willowy brunette who looked to be about his age or maybe a bit younger, say 22 or 23, with no makeup, cold, blue eyes and creamy skin that made him think of Michelangelo's Pieta.

He rose to his feet and extended his hand. "Good evening, ma'am. I'm Joe Hatcher." Now that he was standing, she seemed taller than he'd first thought, nearly equal to his six feet. It was almost like her clothes and posture conspired to make him underestimate her. He forced a grin. "What can I do for you?"

She barely touched his calloused hand. When she spoke, her frosty contralto sent shivers down his spine. "I'm here to engage your services, Mister...Hatcher, did you say your name was?"

Jesus, what was this woman doing in a place like Acme's Accounting Services? Like his suit, Joe was Walmart, and she was Saks Fifth Avenue. He ran his fingers over his stubbled chin and nodded to the guest chair. "Have a seat and we'll see what we can do." Hard knocks had taught him to never turn down an opportunity, no matter how unlikely.

She perched on the edge of the plastic seat and chewed her lip. Her straight bangs fell across her brow and obscured her trendy silver eyeglasses, but her hair was buzzed short on the sides, nearly as short as Joe's razor cut.

A car drove through the strip mall's parking lot, its radio blaring hip-hop and its bass thumping.

Joe settled back into his chair and waited. Was she going to speak, or what? The overhead fluorescent light flickered and buzzed, casting a harsh glow over the cramped office. Silence stretched.

This is all first draft, and the rough edges of craft still stick out, but let's take a look at what's here. First, notice that it includes all the information about Joe's appearance in the original list without stopping the story by saying, "Joe was over six feet, with a stubble beard and a cheap suit." Instead, we learn this in the natural flow of events. We even learn that he's maybe a little more sophisticated than he lets on, since Jill's skin reminds him of the marble in a famous Renaissance sculpture.

These paragraphs also include a description of Jill, including that her appearance is deceptive. We've also got a hint of the class difference between Joe and Jill. Finally, we know from her icy expression and frosty tone that she's cold.

It's also worth noting that the opening sentences are designed to draw the reader into Joe's head. He's doing something--lost in the return--and exercising his grip. The latter leads to a burn in his arm, a subjective feeling that puts the readers squarely inside his head. The doormat chimes, he reacts, and the willowy brunette walks in. We get some final scene setting with the flickering light in the "cramped" office and the hip-hop music blasting from the parking lot of the strip mall.

There's also some tension building as she chews her lip and doesn't speak. Hopefully, at this point the reader is hooked. What does the woman want? Clearly, Joe hopes to make some money, but the situation screams that there is risk--that the woman isn't going to be honest with him. After all, the reader knows there wouldn't be a story here unless there is something going on!

Kurt Vonnegut said that every sentence should advance plot or character, and preferably both. I'm not as skilled as Vonnegut by any stretch, but I think almost every sentence in the above accomplishes one or both of those goals while at the same time conveying information about setting and the appearance of the characters. This isn't easy to do, but with some thought and attention to craft, it's not impossibly difficult, either.

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