Friday, May 18, 2018

Writing: Character Description

NOTE: The price of the Kindle version of my novella, Surgeon's Choice, has been cut by $1, and it is available via Amazon for this reduced price of $2.99 for the remainder of May. If you've already read it, tell your friends. (Actually, tell everyone--your enemies may enjoy it, too).

One of the problems I have is that I get so wound up in the story I'm telling that I neglect to at least give a minimal description of the person about whom I'm talking. That usually comes in the second or third draft, often following a suggestion by my first reader.

As many of you know, I like fiction by the late Robert B. Parker, and I often read through those books again and again, learning each time I do. I going through Taming A Sea Horse I found these two examples of describing a woman (his permanent girl-friend) and a man (who isn't a very wholesome character).

Here's his description of the woman's clothes. "She was wearing a black skirt and a lemon-yellow blouse with black polka dots and a pearl-gray jacket. Her necklace was crystal and pearl, large beads. She wore clunky black earrings and a big bracelet of black and gray chunks of something." He goes on to describe her stockings, her shoes, her purse, and the overnight bag she carried. I think it's a bit much, but maybe not.

Then the man: "Sitting on a barstool drinking Budweiser beer from a long-necked bottle was a guy with a round red face and a big hard belly. He was entirely bald and his head seemed to swell out of his thick shoulders without benefit of neck. He had small piggy eyes under scant eyebrows that were blond or white and barely visible, and his thick flared short nose looked like a snout." He goes on to describe his dirty white T-shirt, his overalls and work boots. I could really picture this man from what Parker wrote.

So, what do you like when a character is introduced? Do you like a physical description, something about their clothes, a particular mannerism? Prefer to picture the character in your mind from the author's description, or formulate your own picture of them? Let me know.

Tweet with a single click. "How important is the physical description of a character in a novel?"

8 comments:

Patricia Bradley said...

When you get the answer to this question, please pass it on. I have so much trouble describing characters!

I do know that I usually skip over the descriptions you just cited when I find them in a book. I'm doing a blog post soon on why long descriptive passages are no longer relevant.

Richard Mabry said...

Patricia, Neither I nor any other authors I know (including the ones who teach a lot) have the secret. I guess that comes under "voice," and every writer's voice is individual. I agree about long descriptive passages slowing down the reader. I like to give just enough description that the reader can form an image of the character, then leave it to them. Thanks for your comment.

Priscilla said...

Yes, I like to know something about a character's physical appearance, even if it's a cliche, so I have a quick mental picture in my head. I haven't read Taming a Seahorse, but if the descriptions go on from there, that'd be way more than I need.

I think it's really cool when a description says something about the character's personality. He never carries himself at full height because he feels beaten down by life, or she's always tugging on her knockoff clothes because they just don't fit as well as the designer brand she can't afford.

Richard Mabry said...

Priscilla, I agree that a description is good, but a long one isn't necessarily better. Thanks for your comment.

Lora said...

I'm an editor, and the right amount of physical description is critical for readers to feel like they are IN the story. Too much description or the wrong kind (like extensive details of clothing) can make a reader's eyes glaze over. Not enough detail and the reader will imagine their own characters--then when you write something that doesn't fit with their personal image, it will pull them out of the story. Here's a blog I wrote on exactly what and how to write characters: https://editsbylora.com/2017/11/05/i-dont-believe-you

Richard Mabry said...

Lora, you're right. The secret is finding that "middle ground" that lets the reader identify with the character, but without losing them. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Debbie Rhoades said...

I love that physical description! It's liked U can see that man clearly! I love seeing the characters clearly in my mind's eye.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Debbie. I appreciate your input.