Sunday, March 17, 2019

Character desciption

All too often characters are described as though the author is writing for a police blotter: hair, height, eye color. If the character is female there's usually something about her desirability factor.

This kind of flat description does not bode well for an imaginative twisty zesty manuscript.

So, what am I looking for instead?

Here's a good example, from City of Windows by Robert Pobi (Minotaur: forthcoming August 2019)
Lucas is the POV main character; he's in Wyoming meeting the local law:

Sheriff Brice "Bronco" Doyle was a tall man a few years into his fifties, with a solid set of shoulders and a head that could have been hammered out of a paint bucket.  ...He had a cross pin on his lapel beside the American flag, and he carried a pair of pistols in a tooled old-time holster that had the mirror image of Jesus worked into the pockets. Doyle gave the impression that he was the kind of man you'd want at your side when you ran out of ammunition and the cannibals made it over the fence.  But there was nothing humorous about his disposition and he didn't smile much. But what weirded Lucas out was that for a small-town sheriff on the edge of civilization, he had yet to swear.

After reading this, you have a three-dimensional view of Sheriff Doyle, not a police blotter sketch.

This is the type of description that  makes me shiver with delight and anticipation when I'm reading a requested full.


Beth Carpenter said...

I know that guy! Not really, but I do now.

JanR said...

There is no better feeling when a book starts out like that :)

I tried to find an example as good, but this was the closest I remember from recent reading, from Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. What I liked about this one was the way it also reveals something about the narrator, which is a really important function of description for me in a first-person book.

Detective Chief Inspector Alexander Seawoll was a big man, coming in a shade under two metres, barrel-chested, beer-bellied and with a voice that could make the windows shake. He was from Yorkshire or somewhere like that and, like many Northerners with issues, he’d moved to London as a cheap alternative to psychotherapy.

May I ask something off-topic: CarolyNN, are you here? Are you OK?

Brenda said...

I just finished Don Winslow’s Power of the Dog.

Jerry the Doof always has good coke. He wants her to go to Cabo with him. Of course he does. He’s a forty-four-year-old coke dealer with more memories than possibilities; she’s sixteen with a body like springtime.

I’m digging into The Cartel this afternoon. How is a writer supposed to write when you’ve got acts like this to follow?

Alina Sergachov said...

I'm writing a MG novel, so I'll give some example from the books I really liked in this genre:

I like Rick Riordan's descriptions. Here's how he describes a minotaur in Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief:

“Glancing back, I got my first clear look at the monster. He was seven feet tall, easy, his arms and legs like something from the cover of Muscle Man magazine—bulging biceps and triceps and a bunch of other ‘ceps, all stuffed like baseballs under vein-webbed skin. He wore no clothes except underwear—I mean, bright white Fruit-of-the-Looms, which would’ve been funny except for the top of his body. Coarse brown hair started at about his bellybutton and got thicker as it reached his shoulders.”

And another example is from Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever (if you liked TV show Smash, you should read this trilogy!):

“Garret Charles crouches low against the mirror, with Monica, and flips through the pages on her clip-board fervently. He’s actually squatting so deeply that I can’t help but stare; this dramatic Yoga pose is the first evidence that he must have really been a good dancer once. Garret Charles is, like, at least ten years older than Dad, and if Dad tried that kind of crouch, his knees would probably fly right out off his legs, across the dining room.”

I like the voice in both of these examples. That's what matters to me--POV of the protagonist.

John Davis Frain said...

Wow. I read a passage like that, and I immediately think I wish I'd written that. Superb.

Oh, BrendaLynn, I was about to say almost the same thing. This morning, before I even got on Janet's blog, I was remembering Denny Malone from Don Winslow's THE FORCE. All he ever wanted to be was a good cop. I remember him so well even though I read that book a year and 16 novels ago, because Winslow paints him like van Gogh. And I remember saying the very same thing you wrote--how can I submit a manuscript when this is the kind of stuff I'm competing against?

So, we have to do two things. Keep getting better, and keep submitting. To do that, you have to do a third thing--keep writing.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

JanR, I'm here and doing much better. It's scary shit when the unexpected rises up to bite you in the ass. Thanks for asking. I'm mending well.

And regarding our Queen, shivering with delight and anticipation, now that's a description I'd want to see.

Craig F said...

A Happy St. Paddy's day to all of you. Me mom's maiden name was McElliget, so I am allowed to wear the green. May the wind always be at your back, and so on.

Zee question:

Is a description of a guy, not too big, not too small, rather slender. Good looking, but you don't know why. Looks like someone you might want to know, but you don't know why. Distinctive eyes, but wears tinted glasses. Would have been a great spy because you forget all but the general outline when he goes; is that hackneyed?

Glad you are on the mend Carolynn

Steve Stubbs said...

Thanks for the example and congratulations on selling the Pohl book. I look forward to its release in August and hope it makes you rich, rich, rich. An example like this always makes the descriptive part of the post far more meaningful.

This is a great addition to the "objective factors" post you shared the other day. Very helpful.

JanR said...

Carolynn I’m so glad you’re mending! Thank you for letting us know. Stay well! I hope you have a book of delight to read while you are recovering.

Timothy Lowe said...

Okay, I'll play.

From Marlena, Julie Buntin's 2018 debut (so far, fab):

Jimmy opened the door, my tall, shaggy-haired brother, a dribble of toothpaste on his chin. When he was my age, he'd published an op-ed in the local newspaper about being a teenage atheist. He was blonde and blue-eyed like Mom, and could run a mile in six minutes. Back when we were still the kind of family who went on camping trips, Jimmy and I used to share a bed in the rented motor home. Mom made us sleep head to toe, so we wouldn't fight. Jimmy always got to put his head in the normal place; I was the one who had to be upside down. And so I loathed him, in an effortful way, for all that, but mostly because of how he dismissed Dad, and how that made Dad more eager for Jimmy's attention than he ever was for mine.

Claire Bobrow said...

Great piece of description. I especially liked the last line, with the sharp-eyed detail about the absence of swearing.

Here's a nice passage from an MG novel called Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell. It's just after a man has rescued a baby floating in a cello case in the English Channel:

Think of nighttime with a speaking voice. Or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal cords. Give those things a narrow aristocratic face with hooked eyebrows, and long arms and legs, and that is what the baby saw as she was lifted out of her cello case and up into safety. His name was Charles Maxim, and he determined, as he held her in his large hands - at arm's length, as he would a leaky flowerpot - that he would keep her.

Brenda said...

Good point, John. Onward and upwards.

Jo Conn said...

That was delicious.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

I agree. The best description focuses on one or two salient features - a mannerism, a nose, a smile - and ties them to the first hints of the person's character.

I also like descriptions to come early. I hate it when I get halfway through the book only to find out that a character I've been picturing has a different color eyes from what I thought, or didn't have a beard after all. Not that you have to dump all that on the reader in one paragraph, but definitely in the first conversation.

I DON'T like it when a character's desirability factor is mentioned right up front. That kind of thing should grow on you. Of course, I'm a female reader, so I am clearly biased.