Sunday, January 13, 2013

Character Descriptions – Detailed or Sketchy?


by Jodie Renner, freelance fiction editor and craft writer

How do you feel about authors inserting detailed descriptions of each minor character as they come on the scene? To me, it seems artificial and contrived, and interrupts the story line. Or am I being too critical or picky, do you think?

I think it’s more natural and less intrusive to work the info in in smaller bits instead, as part of the ongoing action, not in a separate paragraph or cluster of descriptive sentences.

Even to suddenly stop the story to describe a main character in a paragraph or two seems unnatural and intrusive to me, but I don’t usually say so in my editing, as I don’t want to come across as some kind of strict, purist Nazi editor. But there again, I think it’s more sophisticated and organic to work in little details about the character as he/she is in action, interacting with others or whatever, rather than just stopping everything for a static description. To me, that’s the author stepping in to address the readers, and it shatters the illusion of being right there in the story world, just us and the characters.

Here’s an example, disguised, from a chapter in the middle of a thriller I edited (names, locale, and circumstances changed). All of the characters in this chapter appear in the book for the first and only time here. They’re important for this scene, but none reappear anywhere again in the book. Yet the author has chosen to describe each of these four characters in detail. I understand it more for the leader and POV character, but even then it seems like a bit of an interruption to me.

First, here’s the original scene, with character descriptions in bold.

The chapter opens:

Officer Lance Nakomoto of the CPD scanned his rearview mirror for the other unmarked car behind him. Both vehicles cruised the streets of Chicago in the dead of the night. 

Nakomoto was a tallish Asian man in his mid-forties with short spiky black hair. He had a kind, friendly face that didn’t immediately give away his real profession. His height and athletic build suggested a retired football player or a bodyguard.

[I left the above description (but changed here) because it was the POV character, even though I felt it was a bit of an interruption to the action and could have been pared down a bit, or the details spread out over several paragraphs.]

[…]

Nakomoto rang the doorbell of the suspect’s house and then stepped back. They waited. Nothing.

His partner and second-in-command, Peter Carson, looked through the window of the house. “The place has been trashed.” 

Carson was a hair shorter than Nakomoto, fair-skinned, with plump red lips and expressive green eyes. His head was shaved to mask his premature balding and he wore John Lennon glasses. Although he was five years younger than Nakomoto, he was softer around the edges and not quite as fit as his boss.

Nakomoto peered in and saw ripped couches, overturned furniture, broken lamps and smashed pictures. 

He turned to David Lewis, the third guy in the four-man team. “Climb that tree and see if you can get a look inside the second floor.” 

Lewis was in his early thirties, and at five feet seven inches, the shortest in the group. He had streaked brown hair, striking features, and a lean frame that was more agile than powerful. 

Lewis trotted over to the tall oak tree and started hoisting himself up.

Nakomoto had all the necessary warrants to search the premises and apprehend Dubrovnik if they found him, but for now they weren’t sure how many were inside or whether they were dead or alive, so they were proceeding with caution.

Nakomoto then turned to Juan Lopez, who at twenty-seven, was the rookie in the group. “Juan, go around the back and check it out.”

Juan Lopez had olive skin, puffed cheeks and a recently toned body. Nakomoto had seen Lopez’s college pictures and recognized the baby face, but was amazed at the transformation he'd gone through since then while getting in shape for the force.

A few minutes later, Lopez spoke quietly to Nakomoto on the radio. (And it continues.)


Here’s the same scene, after several revisions, with character descriptions bolded again:

Nakomoto rang the doorbell of the suspect’s house and then stepped back. They waited. Nothing.

His partner and second-in-command, Peter Carson, who had intense blue eyes and a shaved head, looked through the window of the house. “The place has been trashed.” 

Nakomoto peered in and saw ripped couches, overturned furniture, broken lamps and smashed pictures. 

He turned to David Lewis, the third guy in the four-man team. “Climb that tree and see if you can get a look inside the second floor.” 

Lewis, who was in his early thirties and short, with streaked brown hair and an agile, lean frame, trotted over to the tall oak tree and started hoisting himself up.

Nakomoto had all the necessary warrants to search the premises and apprehend Dovotnik if they found him, but for now they weren’t sure how many were inside or whether they were dead or alive, so they were proceeding with caution.

Nakomoto turned to Juan Lopez, the twenty-seven-year-old rookie in the group, who had olive skin, a baby face, and a recently toned body. “Juan, go around the back and check it out.” 

A few minutes later, Lopez spoke quietly to Nakomoto on the radio.


~ Readers, what do you think? Do you like detailed descriptions of characters, even minor characters? Or would you prefer a quick sketch and get on with the action?

~ Writers, which do you prefer? Do you have any tricks for working in details about characters without bringing the action to a halt while you describe them?
 


Jodie Renner, a freelance editor specializing in popular fiction, has published two 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 (soon to be re-titled Fire up Your Fiction), which won a Silver Medal in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013, and Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards, 2013. Upcoming title: Immerse the Readers in Your Story World. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, her blog, Resources for Writers, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Jodie also blogs alternate Mondays on The Kill Zone blog. Subscribe to Jodie’s newsletter here. 


43 comments:

  1. A quick sketch. Readers will create their own image based on the character's actions.

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    1. Thanks, Brian! That seems to be the consensus so far!

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  2. I agree with you. The lengthy (or not so lengthy) descriptions are an awkward imitation of the 19th century style of description. Here, for example, is the beginning of the long paragraph description of Hartright when he first meets the Woman in White: "I looked attentively at her, as she put that singular question to me....All I could discern distinctly by the moonlight was a colourless, youthful face, meager and sharp to look at, about the cheeks and chin; large, grave, wistfully-attentive eyes; nervous, uncertain lips; and light hair of a pale, brownish-yellow hue." This also has the advantage of being first-person, and so immediate.
    In your example, the description is intrusive because it's not relevant. What difference does it make if Carson has "intense blue eyes and a shaved head"? Now if he had shaved eyes and an intense blue head...
    Another example from your example: "Lewis, who was in his early thirties and short, with streaked brown hair and an agile, lean frame, trotted over to the tall oak tree and started hoisting himself up." Why not something like: "Lewis trotted over to the tall oak tree, jumping to catch the lowest branch and then nimbly hoisting himself up." I don't necessarily like "nimbly" but the point is Lewis's age or hair color isn't important (unless one of them is blue), but his shortness is. That can conveyed by the action - how he gets to the tree; his agility is nimbly hoisting. (Oh, the puns.)
    Perhaps the writer - or such writers - are afraid to trust the reader's imagination. Perhaps it's a problem with the craft of POV.
    I don't know that this is a "trick," so much as being respectful of craft: I try to perceive what the POV character perceives. What registers immediately, or consciously (not identical), or subconsciously that bubbles to attention - the odd, distracting thought. "As they walked down the street, talking about the difference between Charleston and New York in January, McCallum noticed a new snag in Stacey sweater - it curled liked the lock of hair over her right ear." (Does that work?)
    Perhaps, too, such description substitutes, unwittingly, for characterization, that only comes from action and dialogue.
    Just a few thoughts. Great post.

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    1. "Stacey's sweater" - fingers slip over the keyboard too fast sometimes.

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    2. Thanks so much for your detailed, thoughtful, and insightful response, with great examples, David!

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  4. A few details are all you need. The most challenging thing is to convey information about the protagonist, since the story is told from his or her perspective. We don't typically see, or describe, ourselves so it can be bit contrived to work it in.

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  5. I find the detail slows the story. If the characters only appear once, I don't feel the need to know what they look like. For other characters, the description should be pared in gradually, with the author also trusting the reader to make the observations. I recently read a book that went off on a tangent numerous times with overly described detail and I got frustrated with it - it halted the story in its tracks and I lost interest.

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  6. Almost nothing works for me....it's not like you're trying to build a FotoFit. How many people REALLY note every detail?

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  7. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, LJ, Jenny, and Andrew!

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  8. I don' think there are hard and fast rules here. Sometimes, a main character does not need a lot of rambling to maintain some level of mystery and keep him enigmatic. Other times, minor characters will deserve a physical description and some background as a prelude to the actions they will undertake which may be instrumental to the plot.

    But yes, in general, writers have a tendency to get attached to all of their characters and can ramble on excessively. But it would be up to an excellent editor like Jodie to set us straight. Great article and very useful site!

    Thanks!

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    1. I agree with you that of course there are no hard and fast rules, aktwo. But to me, it's all about staying up to date with current reader (and industry) expectations, and gauging how we as readers feel about the story being interrupted for a description of any kind, or whether even small but unusual descriptions are just distracting, making us wonder why they're there. And if it turns out those details aren't significant in any way, do readers in some small way feel cheated a bit? Like "I thought that was relevant or important, when it turns out it wasn't at all. So why did the writer waste my time with it?"

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  9. Thanks for your comment, aktwo!

    And yes, this is an excellent group blog for both readers and writers of crime fiction. It's chock-full of high-quality, informative, thought-provoking, useful articles, so feel free to browse down the list of posts, or do a subject search!

    I often go back to blog posts by others here myself, to remind myself of something interesting I read, or find a resource I didn't take note of.

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  10. I would agree with aktwo that there are no hard and fast rules. I do also believe that everything, absolutely everything on the page should serve the story in some way.

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    1. Anne, I love your comment, "everything, absolutely everything on the page should serve the story in some way." Brilliant, and so well-said! This interactive process is one of the joys of being a blogger - reading the insightful comments of our readers (who are almost all writers).

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  11. I'd like even less description of the minor characters. It still seemed intrusive, and somewhat repetitive with the "who had…". If the characters aren't important, something like "Juan Lopez, the youngest of the group" is enough to suggest his rough appearance. By giving more details, as a reader I feel like I'm supposed to pay attention, so it pushes me out of the scene, and I might go back to try to figure out who had what color eyes/hair etc., assuming I'll want to know what they look like later.

    One kind of shortcut that doesn't work as well, though – describing someone as looking like a celebrity. I've heard it described as lazy, but what I think is worse, it could have the opposite effect you intended. I recently read a book which was overall very good, but the romantic hero was described multiple times as looking like "a young Burt Reynolds." Since I don't find Burt Reynolds attractive, this came across as a negative thing. Younger readers might not even know what he looks like, or only know how he looked older.

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    1. Thanks, Kris -- you make several excellent points!

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  12. Stopping the action to insert descriptive details annoys me as a reader.

    I would totally axe that opening description of Nakamoto. We can guess he's Asian and the likely color of his hair from his name. We know his profession from the opening sentence. His height and build and spiky hairstyle are irrelevant here, but could easily be worked into a later bit. The incongruity of his kindly face could better be remarked on by another character, maybe his wife or an innocent person he's interrogating.

    Why would Nakamoto pay the slightest attention to his team's description, let alone their body-building history, in a moment of (hopefully) suspense? He cares about the qualities his team brings to investigating this house, that's all. And if these characters show up nowhere else, why does the reader care about their other details?

    I'd write something like this:

    He turned to Dave Lewis, a lean man at least four inches shorter than Nakamoto's own six foot frame, and cocked his thumb toward one of the oak trees towering over the yard. “Climb up there and see if you can get a look inside the second floor.”
    Lewis trotted over to the tree and hoisted himself like an Olympic gymnast into its branches.

    I don't think pointing out ANYthing that drags down the story makes the editor mean or unreasonable. Then again, if I ever get my novel manuscript finished and sent to an editor, I might feel differently about my baby. :)

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    1. Thanks for your excellent, detailed, insightful comments, Linda! Much appreciated!

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  13. A few details are enough. After that it entrudes on the story. However… a few details are important. It's possible I missed an early detail about a series character, but in my mind he was very much the Brian Dennehy type. Big. Gruff. A teddy bear. A few books into the series and the author described him as tiny and slight. Whoa. I still prefer him as the big teddy bear.

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    1. Excellent point, Peg! Give us a rough idea - a place to start. And of course, personality traits and any relevant physical ones will come out in the story.

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  14. Depending upon the voice of the writer and the story they are telling, lengthy descriptions could be part of their writing style, although in your example, they certainly come off as clunky.

    I like to write as if I'm watching a movie, so my character descriptions tend to be part of the action. Peri adjusts her ball cap over her blonde ponytail, or scrunches her 5'9" frame behind the steering wheel. A quick glimpse and move on.

    I'm pretty sensitive to the "mirror description," too, lately. I don't know anyone who looks in the mirror and describes their hair, eye color, scars, etc. We scrutinize our pores, critique our makeup or hairstyle, but that's different.

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    1. I love the natural, organic way you worked those details in about Peri, Gayle!

      And yes, the mirror thing's been way overdone! But I can see something like, "She wished, for the umpteenth time, that her hair was blond and curly instead of brown and straight. Maybe she should shed the shoulder-length look and get a pixie cut?"

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  15. I'm a firm believer in weaving in character elements as the story proceeds. Information dumps simply hold up the story and the reader won't absorb the details anyway.

    For example, the protagonist in one of my historical crime stories is a 35-year old coroner. I could have stated that, baldly. Instead, I wove it in to the action:

    "In my ten years as a coroner, I have seen a hundred forms of death. Limbs mangled, faces crushed, guts spilled. I had watched a dozen men being disembowelled by the hangman upon the public street, for the amusement of the crowd. But never before had I seen so much blood gathered together in one small chamber."

    "I saw the urchin was not a child but a skinny beardless man. With his deep-lined face he was barely younger than myself and I was five and thirty years."

    Now the salient details have been slid in obliquely. Elsewhere I show he has long hair by having him shake it at someone, angrily.

    Don't describe your character. Have the character do something that demonstrates their characteristics!

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    1. "Don't describe your character. Have the character do something that demonstrates their characteristics!"

      Awesome! Thanks, John!

      So many excellent comments today!

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  17. Those descriptors are really clunky. In his latest book, Ian Rankin doesn't even describe Rebus and he describes another cop as: "He was twenty years younger than Rebus, and a stone and half lighter. A bit less gray in his hair. Most cops looked like cops, but Fox could have been middle management in a plastics company or Inland Revenue."

    Perfect, just perfect!

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    1. Thanks for sharing that great description by Ian Rankin, Lourdes!

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  18. I'm seeing the same characteristics. Hair, eyes, build. They don't really reveal character other than a quick snapshot. I can't recall the interview or newsletter article Connelly did about Harry Bosch, but I thing he said something to the effect that in 18 books, he probably only had 80 words of description of the character. I prefer to draw my own conclusions, and feed the information in slowly, preferably through the eyes of another character, which means often my 'first character on the scene' is hardly described until another POV character sees him/her.

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    1. Excellent points, Terry. And come to think of it, I don't recall any detailed descriptions of Harry Bosch, yet I find him intriguing and strong and occasionally vulnerable and sometimes annoying but at the same time endearing!

      And it appears that descriptions of the POV character and first character on the scene are the most challenging to pull off naturally.

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  19. An excellent post Jodie, with a very relevant topic. I rarely give descriptive details of my main characters' physical attributes because I want the reader to formulate them on their own. I think being heavy handed with this can be intrusive and interfere with their mental picture. I do describe minor characters as they appear because they are from the POV of the main character, and it feels more organic for him to have impressions.

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    1. Drew, what you've said here ties in completely with deep point of view, getting into the POV character's head and staying there for the chapter or scene. Describing the POV character is the author stepping in to explain something to the reader, and jolts us out of the fictive dream.

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  20. That piece reads as though the writer was new to writing. Stopping the action to give descriptions of the character is boring. I prefer to relate to and learn about characters through their actions. If physical appearance is important, I'd rather it be noted by another character or through action. If a character is very tall, you don't have to state that. Have him have to duck as he enters a room.

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    1. Great ideas, Helen! And I love your example!

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  21. Let's put it this way - I skimmed right through the original. "Blah, blah, blah description - get on with it."

    As both a reader and a writer I prefer sketching in description details. As I reader, I want to draw my own picture. As a writer, I want my audience invested enough to draw the picture for themselves.

    The exception, for me, is if there is a particularly vivid, detailed, *and important* characteristic about the character - such as a scar or a tattoo. I might spend more words on that.

    But a paragraph to say the man is tall, athletic, with brown hair and blue eyes? Not so much.

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  22. Great post, Jody. And great subject.

    As a writer I believe we MUST know all such details about our characters. Otherwise we won't think of them as alive and won't write them with enough of a 3D feel.
    However, the trick is to trickle the information to the reader, only show what's important at the time.
    You did great in the first correction, when the character showed up through a window, intense eyes and shaved head would get noticed right away!

    Same about locations. When I set up a scene I have a diagram of the room, I know where the chair, the coffee table, even the location of the door. Not all of it does end on the page, though.

    As with all else, it is a balancing act. :-)

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  23. I agree that gobs of description, especially when it's not particularly interesting or fresh, really slows down the story. I prefer combining the descriptions of major characters with body language when the character is reacting to something that happens or is said, and weaving in the details gradually.

    Too many newbie writers waste a lot of words describing non-dramatic characters.

    Why not paint a picture instead, e.g., the bus driver had more dandruff than hair. You might see a fat guy with his belly hanging over his belt; someone else might see a wiry guy, but since it's a minor character, it doesn't matter a whit.

    I'm sick to death of green/blue eyes, dark hair, yadda yadda yadda.

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    1. Seems a lot of readers agree with you, Sheryl! Thanks for sharing your opinions!

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  24. Great question. In some sense, I think an elaborate description of a minor character might set up the reader with a false impression of the character's future importance. But if an author is good enough to make it work somehow, all bets are off. :-)

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    1. I agree with your first statement, Jack, and don't see the point of toying with the readers by making them think a walk-on or one-off character might be somehow important by describing them in great detail...? Just setting the readers up to be disappointed or feeling a bit cheated or wondering what the author is playing at, I think.

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  25. Great post, Jodie. Wonderful to see the variety of comments, all on a similar path...perfect for a newbie like me to take a stroll along.

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  26. Thanks, D.F.! I'm really impressed by the quality of the commments myself! Go, readers!

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  27. As a beginning writer of my first novel, this is something over which I have anguished. Great feedback here. Thanks!

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