Descriptive Passages, Part II: Character


I used last week’s post to introduce the topic of descriptive passages.  I focused on setting, but my point was one that works for all aspects of storytelling, as I hope this week’s post will demonstrate.  Keeping in mind Vernor’s Law (at any given time in a book we should be accomplishing at least two and preferably all three of the following:  furthering plot, developing character, filling in background) I tried to show with last week’s novel excerpts how a descriptive passage, rather than slowing down narrative progress, actually allows us to reinforce the work we do on plot and background.

I’m going to touch on many of the same themes this week as I discuss character descriptions, but I’ll also bring elements of point of view and character development, drawing on some of the stuff Edmund mentioned in Saturday’s post.  I would also refer you to a couple of posts I wrote last year.  One was a comparison of a character sketch and a character portrait, and the other, which appeared the following week, dealt with character sketches and point of view.

As with descriptions of setting, we don’t want our descriptions of characters to become mere laundry lists of attributes.  Passages that deal solely with appearance, or even with personality quirks will wind up stalling our narrative, detracting from the story, which of course is exactly what we don’t want.  Instead, character descriptions should give us insights into the person being described; they should reveal something of his/her personality or morals or motives that touch on plot points, even if those plot points don’t fully manifest themselves for another three hundred pages.  But even more, those passages should also reveal something of the character through whose eyes we are meeting the person being described.  In other words, a character description should tell us something about the person being described AND the person doing the describing.  A couple of examples:

Again, these come from Thieftaker, the first D.B. Jackson publication, which will be released in May 2012.  Ethan Kaille, our hero, arrives at the Dowsing Rod, the tavern owned by his lover, Kannice Lester.  Kannice does her best to keep miscreants and troublemakers out of her establishment, which is a problem for one of Ethan’s closest friends, Diver Jervis:

Of all the people Ethan knew who frequented the Dowser, Diver came closest to getting himself banned from the tavern.  He did so with some frequency, and, as Kannice had pointed out on more than one occasion, if it wasn’t for Ethan’s friendship with the man, Diver would have been tossed out into the streets long ago.  He sat alone at a table near the back of the tavern.  Catching Ethan’s eye, he raised his tankard, his eyebrows going up.

Ethan had to laugh.  The evening mist and a few stubborn midges still clung to his waistcoat, and already Diver was asking him to buy his next ale.  Ethan crossed to the bar.

The dynamic among these characters — Ethan, Kannice, and Diver — is complicated, and central to the development of all three.  Already we get a glimpse of it here.  Diver is a mooch and a rogue, and though Ethan recognizes his friend’s faults, he also is soft-hearted enough that he tolerates and even caters to Diver’s bad habits.  This is one of Ethan’s weaknesses (not just with Diver, but with others as well) — it explains the darkest elements of his past, and haunts him throughout the novel.  Kannice, on the other hand, disapproves of their friendship, and sees Diver taking advantage of the man she loves.

Later in the same scene, Ethan tells a bit more:

He was a handsome man.  His face was still youthful, his black curls were still untouched by gray.  Kannice’s hostility notwithstanding, women were drawn to him.  He was tall, lean, and dark-eyed, and he had a winning smile and a fine sense of humor.  But if Ethan had a daughter, he would have done everything in his power to keep Diver away from her.

Ethan isn’t blind to Diver’s faults, as that last line makes abundantly clear.  And in fact, his suspicions of Diver inform a central plot point that weaves through the entire novel.  Notice, also that we now know what Diver looks like, but the physical description isn’t given for its own sake, but rather is used to reinforce a more important point.  These two passages total less than two hundred words, and yet they manage to convey a great deal of information about Diver as well as about our POV character (with some sense of Kannice thrown in as a bonus).

Let’s try another, this one from Rules of Ascension, the first book in the Winds of the Forelands quintet.

A moment later Kearney entered the great room with the duchess on his arm.  He was dressed as if for battle — appropriate for a banquet honoring one he sought as an ally.  He wore a simple black shirt and matching breeches, and the silver, red, and black baldric worn by all dukes of Glyndwr.  He was smiling broadly, his youthful, tanned face ruddy in the firelight and his hair, silver before its time, shining with the glow of the torches mounted on the walls.  He was not particularly tall or broad shouldered, but to Keziah he looked like a king.

This description of a Kearney, Duke of Glyndwr, is almost entirely concerned with physical attributes, but I’ve tried to make it more than simply a list of features.  His clothes convey something of his personality — he is a warrior, but also a strategist who uses his military prowess as a diplomatic tool.  The silver hair and youthful features are meant to say something about him as well — strong, but also wise and charismatic.  And that last line, which foreshadows a key plot point, tells us much about Keziah, our point of view character, and her relationship with the duke.

Sometimes our descriptions are just that:  descriptions.  There is nothing wrong with taking a line or two to tell readers what a new character looks like.  It’s not always possible to imbue every descriptive passage with deep meaning, and readers like to have at least some small sense of what a person looks like when they read about him or her.  But when we deal with key characters, we want to do what we can to convey more:  dynamics among characters, plot points, or simply insights into deeper aspects of our characters’ personalities.  As with descriptions of setting, a well-placed detail in a character description can go a long way.  A mysterious character wearing spectacles turns his head, and lamplight catches the glass in such a way that the spectacles momentarily turn opaque.  An otherwise attractive man or woman has a dark scar on his/her temple.  A young girl seems happy and self-assured, but she refuses to make eye contact.  One can draw all sorts of meanings from any one of these details, and suddenly the character in question has depth that he/she didn’t have before:  a secret, a past, a hidden agenda.

But more than that, such details also reveal something of the character who notices them, and of the trajectory the characters’ story is going to take.  Stating the obvious:  Point of view, which we at MW have written about repeatedly, allows us into the minds of our characters.  All that our POV characters see reflect not only on the observed, but also on the observer.  When we write description we need to see everything and everyone as our character would.  In this way, descriptive passages convey to our readers far more than just what there is to see at at a given moment.  And that, of course, is the point.

So what have you done with your character descriptions?  How do you tell your readers more than just what someone looks like?  Care to share a short (100 words or fewer) example?

David B. Coe

27 comments to Descriptive Passages, Part II: Character

  • Mikaela

    This is Jaf’s view of the imps shaman:

    The shaman was waiting for him, sitting on a stone bench carved out from the wall.
    His brown skin was wrinkled, from spending his life beneath the blasting heat of the desert sun. A kilt made of skin gifted from a dragon was wrapped around his waist. A necklace made from Hellhound teeth hung around his neck. A feather from a harpy dingled from his left earlobe.
    Each item showed the network of alliances that existed between the inhabitants of Hell. Except the demons.

  • Great pointers, David. I’m in revision mode now and will be looking for these things, in particular the backstory angle which I know is thin right now. Thanks for the nudge.

  • Sorry I’ve been a bit absent from the comments last week. I’ve been involved in some heavy revision work that has consumed me. I came up for air this morning and find that you’ve given me something to go back and double-check on. In fact, I can think of a few places where I really need to make sure it’s all okay. I am curious — how much of your MC do you like to describe physically? I tend to lean towards little description of MCs with the idea that the reader can place him/herself into the roll. But, of course, opinions on this run the full spectrum. Where do you end up?

  • David> Great post. I’ve been working lately in my revisions on this. On giving descriptions with purpose and observation from the MC.

    Here’s mine. (A little background since this is Chapt. 4) Thomas, the tv producer (of “Demon Huntress”) serving a demon is getting dressed to go out and kill a priest. The scene is his POV. (80 words)
    WARNING: some “colorful languge” follows. (I’ve replaced it with stars)

    Thomas tugged on a pair of designer jeans and a tee-shirt. The kind of thing they sold in Hot Topic and online. “Demon Huntress” blazoned across his chest, and a picture of Magdalena, complete with duster, her hand raised and slightly curled, with flames dancing around it. F*** sparkly vampires and stake wielding babes. This was the new millennium, and his babe had more than just bite. He hoped the irony of the t-shirt wouldn’t be lost on Father John.

  • Mikaela, I like the connections among the various items a lot. I think that if you make the first couple of sentences a bit less passive in their construction, it will make the passage even more effective: “The shaman waited for him on a stone bench carved out from the wall. A lifetime spent beneath the desert sun had left his skin wrinkled, brown. He wore a skin kilt around his waist; a gift from a dragon…”

    A.J., always glad to nudge. Hope the revisions go well.

    I like to describe my main characters, if for no other reason than because as a reader, I like to have a few features in mind when picturing the MCs in other people’s books. It can be tricky though, since it prevents POV issues: how and why does a POV character describe himself? Often I use another character, a sibling or parent, as the catalyst. Here’s a passage from my unpubbed urban fantasy — my main character talking to his psychotic father:

    “I’m not certain what moved me to ask the question, but as soon as it crossed my lips he turned his head and looked right at me. Even after all these years, after watching his decline, after feeding him, and helping him take a piss and change into his pajamas on those really tough days, I still found his gaze arresting. Those pale gray eyes were so similar to my own that it was like staring into a mirror and seeing myself as I’d look in thirty years. The rough white beard and mustache, the long, lean face — it was me; me as I will be.”

    I find those types of descriptions very helpful and effective. Hope that helps.

    Emily, okay so EVERYONE is working on revisions. Why didn’t I get the memo….? Love the passage; evocative, effective, punchy. Well done!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Because it’s fun to think about my story when I should be working on my thesis: Descriptions of guardsmen from the POVs of two different members of the resistance:

    “And then another guardsman standing on a street-corner caught her eye. He must have been the hundredth one she’d passed that day, but this time she stopped. The ugly scaring of a Kingsguardsman twisted the skin of his forehead and at once Lailah felt her rage no longer directed at herself, but outward. That man. That man should die.”

    “They weren’t in uniform – in fact, all looked stripped to the waist – but there was that air of lazy confidence about them, like large, lazy hunting cats that moved without question that others would get out of their way.”

    The second one also makes me happy because the scene happening between those guards has just been described from one of the guardsmen’s POV.

  • Nice work, Hep — and always glad to distract someone from a thesis, having written one of my own many, many years ago. I like both passages, although I think you might want to cut the second instance of the word “lazy” — the cat imagery works very well without it. “…like large hunting cats watching potential prey scatter out of their path.” Or some such… Thanks for playing along!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank’s for catching the second “lazy”! I knew there was something strange going one, but for some reason couldn’t see what it was.

  • Fresh eyes! This is why beta readers are so important. Thanks, Hep.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the post, David. I love character descriptions – possibly way too much – and I’m addicted to similes and metaphors. This passage describes an equine main character from my WIP:

    And there she was, the moonlight painting her perfect dapples, her mane floating like foam on her neck. The filly snorted a cloud of steam at the stars and reared, neighing, her hooves flashing, her mane tossing, like the spirit of mist. With a soft thud her forefeet met the ground again and she was away, gone in a flash of silver, her white tail floating on the air like the ghost she seemed to be – almost insubstantial, more part of a dream than anything else.

    I find it very hard to describe POV characters. As a reader, I hate not knowing what they look like. As a writer, I have trouble getting POV characters to describe themselves without sounding vain, especially if they are good-looking. If I may, here’s another passage from my WIP describing the POV character, Falcon. A bit of background: Falcon is fifteen years old but a babyhood sickness has stunted his growth, making him think he’s physically too small to achieve his dream of becoming a knight.

    Seeing his reflection in a cracked mirror at one end of the room, he stared gloomily. His round face belonged to a little boy, with large, dark green eyes, surrounded by an untidy mop of dark brown hair, cut a little lower than chin height, and below that, narrow shoulders.

    Pardon the two passages, but I feel that when it comes to describing characters, I do too much.
    Thanks again (and once more enjoying the excerpts from “Thieftaker”).

  • Mikaela

    Thanks for the feedback, David! You’re right. The paragraph need to be tweaked, but not right now. It will have to wait until next draft ( if I start tweaking now I’ll never finish!) 🙂

  • Thanks for the excerpts, Unicorn. The description of the horse is very poetic. Watch the repetition of “floating” to describe mane and tail, and “flashing” to describe hooves and motion, but otherwise this looks good. I like the second passage very much, and think you’ve gotten the essence of POV description very well (and POV description may be something I should give more attention to in a future post). The point is to tie it to emotion, so in this case I like what you did with the boyish face. Do the same with his hair (too much like a child’s; not like a true knight’s, or something like that) and the narrow shoulders. Make each feature that Falcon notices reinforce his disappointment, his sense of inadequacy. Glad you’re liking the stuff from Thieftaker.

  • I know that feeling, Mikaela. I have stuff that I want to fix on my WIP, but I need to finish the thing before I do anything else.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, David! I didn’t even notice the repetition of “float” and “flash”. I think that those two words are becoming crutches – especially with this particular character – and I’m really pleased that you like Falcon’s description because I had a hard time getting it right. I wanted to build a lot on this internal conflict because the first draft felt very action-packed, like it put too much emphasis on external conflict.
    Oh, and I find it simply fascinating the way you described the son by describing the father in the excerpt above.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    The examination lasted longer than the history of time. Victoria tried not to squirm, aware of what he must be seeing—a slender young woman dressed in what would look, to him, like men’s clothing: a green sweater, black jeans, and brown hiking boots. Long chestnut hair surrounded her like a cloud, cascading over her shoulders and back to brush against her hips. In front, it was cut short, so that dark curling bangs framed hazel eyes that appeared slightly too large for her freckled face.

  • Julia

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this post. Your posts and Edmund’s are coming at a perfect time for me. Here’s a description of my main character, from the POV of one of my other primary characters:

    Alverai easily spun the best blade among them, a social liability he might have overcome had he engaged any of the other trainees in the casual banter that usually accompanied public thrashings. Instead, he spoke to no one, had a face as smooth as stone, and seemed indifferent to the fact that he could have wiped the floor with all the trainees and half the Sworn who stopped by Soledad to train with them. He hadn’t broken his back paving the king’s roads with the rest of the trainee cohort, and he didn’t even have the grace to stop by their hearth-circle and lose some coin at cards.
    Also, his eyes were too intense, a fact Damien realized a fraction too late, after the flush had already started creeping up his cheeks. He broke the gaze quickly.

  • Unicorn, thanks. Glad you like that passage. I do, too. Need to rework the opening pages of that one and get it published. Little touches like the mirror can go a long way toward mitigating that frenzied pace that sometimes creeps into our books. Those internal moments can be wonderful. Again, I like what you did with it. Keep working!

    Jagi, I like that passage very much, particularly the “cloud” of hair. You do a lovely job of making us feel her discomfort, her self-consciousness. Not that I’m surprised of course, having read your work.

    Julia, glad to see that Edmund and I got something right. That doesn’t happen to us very often…. This works nicely, mixing plot points, character, backstory with your description And I like that tag line, as well — the hint of danger for this character who inadvertently has given offense. Well done.

  • Thanks for this, David.

    I’ve got mine broken up by dialogue, but in the interests of keeping it under 100 words, here are the descriptions themselves, of how my character perceives the guy she’s just encountered on the road:

    Whether his shorn, soot-rubbed stubble is enough to make me wary, or whether his angry stare simply strikes me as rude, I am uncertain—but there is something about the man that I am not sure I like.

    (Then, a few lines later):

    I say nothing as I look him over. He wears silks despite his wretched hair, and I smell cologne though he reeks of sweat. A summer breeze swirls past and informs me that he has come from the capital. Well then, we have that much in common.

    The hard part is remembering to keep up this level of description throughout. Thank you for the reminder. Working it into the revisions remains a challenge, though.

  • These read nicely, Laura. I particularly like the second passage — the contradictions in his appearance and scent, the common ground with the narrator. You don’t necessarily need passages like this everywhere, but a few sprinkled through the story will make for a more interesting read, I think, especially if the others are like these two. Thanks for sharing!

  • Nice post, David. I am currently rewriting (hey — *I* got the memo!) a 20+ year old WIP, from back before I learned to write with skill as well as passion. It’s like stumbling backward down a flat, passive, sometimes bleak path. My early work is so basic and bland and … I cannot bring it up to my own, current standards. Even if I get this thing published, it will be a less-than-happy experience for me, because I know I write sooooo much better now. And part of what is missing is the stuff in this post, and Edmund’s Saturday post, and Vernor’s Law. Great post. Just wonderful. Now to dive back into the WIP and try to make it sparkle just a bit.

  • Thanks, Faith. And best of luck with the rewrite. Wow. A 20 year-old manuscript. You’re braver by far than I am. I wouldn’t touch my old work, even if I was holding tongs and wearing a hazardous waste suit….

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, David. This post really helped a lot. I was leafing through one of my older novels and found this about a shy character:
    I studied my plate, my cheeks hot. I didn’t like showing him my work, but he always found away to glance at them from time to time. He wanted me to share them, try and get them out there. But I never did. Even though my secret wish was to see one of my poems or short stories in print.

  • Sarah

    Too late in the day for this? If not, here’s mine.

    Standing in front of the open trunk Harvey took off her wedding ring and zipped it into a pocket of her jacket before she peeled off her jacket and workboots, the comfortable mom jeans and t-shirt underneath. Stripped to her underwear, she took the padded silk undershirt and matching leggings from the box and drew them on. She dragged her hair back into a tight braid, wrapped it once around her head and secured it with her old forest green wool cap. Next came the wool pants, belted at the waist and tucked into the ankles of heavy wool socks. She jammed her feet back into her boots and laced them tight, flexing her ankles to test the fit. Finally, she drew out her mail shirt. It hung in her hands heavier than she remembered, but the fine mesh of steel links had not rusted. She gave it a little shake and the metal whispered under the cloth. She slid the shirt over her head and let it fall onto her shoulders, a solid net anchoring her to the earth.
    Only one other thing remained in the trunk. She bent, adjusting her balance against the weight of the mail shirt, and pulled out the sword. Its oiled silk wrapping slid off the blade and the metal gleamed in her flashlight’s beam.
    “Hello, Blood Drinker,” she said. She spun the blade in her hands, feeling for the balance.

    I’m trying to translate the feel of a medieval arming scene to a modern moment, but the feel isn’t right yet.

  • Alexa, you’re welcome. I like this passage — nice treatment of both characters. I’d like to see more of the interaction you describe here; a little less “tell” and a little more “show.” But you’re taking it in a good direction.

    Sarah, I think it’s close. If I can suggest something: In the first Narnia book (the book, not the movie) there is a wonderful moment as the kids are stepping out of Narnia for the last time, remembering who they really are: “So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamppost, and before they had gone twenty more, they noticed that they were making their way not through branches, but through coats.” The transition from Narnia back to their world takes them from “a score of paces” to “twenty”. You could do something similar, but in reverse. With each additional piece of armor, her way of describing herself and her actions could grow more formal, more “medieval” in feel. That might help with the translation you’re striving for. Just an idea. Best of luck with it.

  • Lance Barron

    David, very helpful. Thank you.

  • Thanks, Lance. Glad you found it valuable.

  • Thank you, David. That’s a bit of a relief to hear (not every passage needs to be like this). I still need to go back and flesh out parts with more description, though.