Monday, 11 February 2013

Describing a Lead Character


I went to the pub the other night and ended up being asked by two different reader friends, about a certain vertically challenged actor playing the role of a six foot five character. Both conversations got me thinking about how characters are described to readers.

Where do you start and stop when describing your lead character? Do you give a comprehensive description that is practically a photofit, do you circle round the lead darting in with the odd detail or do you say nothing?

Take the aforementioned character – Jack Reacher. We know he’s a big guy, Lee Child tells us that in every book. But what colour are his eyes? Has he a square jaw like Dolph Lundgren or is he a pretty boy like Johnny Depp? Has he scars? I guess his teeth are in good nick due to his one possession – the folding toothbrush – but other than that I don’t know what he looks like other than my own mental image. His age is never given out, although you can work it out from the clues Lee Child leaves.

I like this style of description or rather lack of it. It gives me some ownership of the character. A lot of my favourite authors employ this kind of faceless lead where the reader is given broad details but only enough to form an outline. Then the reader can colour in the character as they see them.

Fleming never gave Bond a face in the books, although we all now picture Connery, Brosnan, Moore, Craig or God forbid Lazenby. Billingham’s Tom Thorne, MacBride’s Logan McRae, Sharp’s Charlie Fox and Hilton’s Joe Hunter are also faceless characters who we the readers give faces to.

Lee Child has openly said that whoever got the part of Reacher would be wrong for the majority (can’t remember the percentage and I’m too busy to do research for such a minor point) of fans and I agree with this sentiment. Just look at any discussion as to which actor or actress would play which character or other. What you end up with is a whole host of names thrown into the hat which some agree with and others don’t.

What makes my teeth itch are massively detailed drawings of characters which are unnecessary. Sure tell me the lead’s eye colour if you want. But I don’t care about the colour of the newsagents eyes if it has no relevance to the story. Don’t waste half a page telling me shit I don’t need to know about someone I don’t care about. Be warned if you do the faceless masses will take me away with them and I won’t return to your novel.  

Johnathan Kellerman gives such detailed description of clothes and perfume that I have taken my readership elsewhere due to physically feeling the tension being stolen from the story. What makes this such a shame is the fact he writes otherwise brilliant novels.

Stuart MacBride once described a character as “a baldy wee fuck of a man”. To my mind you don’t need any more than that to give the reader a snapshot of the character and in MacBride’s example the character’s character.

Please drop a comment below about how you deal with character description.

14 comments:

  1. Graham, I so TOTALLY agree with you! From time to time, I ask friends who've read my books if they can describe the characters. Invariably, they say they can and give me detailed descriptions. Where'd you get that, I say, and they answer, It was in the story. No, it wasn't I say. I've never described a character. They go back and the light goes on. I don't. Not necessary. Like you say, they'll furnish their own description and then they "own" it. Myself, when I read students' mss and I see all the description they furnish, my eyes glaze over and I remind them of Harry Crews' advice to "leave out the parts people skip." Character descriptions--especially long, detailed ones--are one of those parts. Great, great post!

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    1. Thanks Les, I'm delighted that you share my opinion. I just don't get the need for endless description especially when it's minor characters. Sure describe expressions or give sketchy details such as fat, thin, tall or ugly. But just enough to give the readers imagination a prompt. No more.

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  2. I think that when readers are given a chance to participate in the creation, they become more invested. It's best to provide a broad stroke that includes whatever detail is actually important to story. Not setting up details that become relevant to the story can be a mistake, but creating too many is probably at least as bad. IMHO and all that.

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  3. Hate to nitpick, but "Fleming never gave Bond a face in the books"?

    From Russia with Love: "It was a dark, clean-cut face, with a three-inch scar showing whitely down the sunburned skin of the right cheek. The eyes were wide and level under straight, rather long black brows. The hair was black, parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick black comma fell down over the right eyebrow. The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth. The line of jaw was straight and firm."

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    1. Bugger! Fair one Steven. I'll hold my hands up and admit I had a memory fail. A genuine mistake has been made.
      If anyone cares to describe me please would they remember to include the egg which is now on my face.

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    2. Ha, no worries. I had to go and check because I wasn't sure if he had been described ... or if I'd created his face in my head. But one thing Fleming does that stands out is that rather than describing purely physical attributes, he tends to go with descriptions that say something about the character. Bond's appearance is often being described with likes of "taciturn … ironical, brutal, and cold", or "saturnine", or mention of his "cruel mouth".

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  4. Most of my characters, I describe only up to a few attributes, so the readers can picture the blanks. However, I've got issues with my protagonist, and like to describe her a lot, but in a more interesting way. I once hinted the color of her shirt in the beginning of the story when her babysitter compared it to chocolate, and she said it was just water. But with my other characters, I only describe hair or facial features (mustache, beard, or glasses) since those things are more noticeable to me.

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    1. That's my point Sunayna. Put in a little, leave out a lot and let the reader personalise the character. Clothes etc can be described as smartly / slovenly dressed without naming the brand of shoes, pants, shirt for every character.

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  6. Great post, I agree, leave out the long detailed descriptions and credit the readers with an imagination.

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  7. Hello Graham
    I agree with the less is more approach. Once read a published novel that had such detailed descriptions I felt bogged down. And another thing. If we are writing 'close in' to the main protagonist, ie having the reader look through their eyes (whether it's written first person or 3rd), it's unnatural to describe them - they would not describe themselves! And PULEASE don't get around it by having them look in a mirror - such a cliche. I sometimes do give a bit more detail about other characters to indicate the impression they are making on the protagonist.
    Someone tell me, does Rankin describe Rebus? Ken Stott always seemed perfect although I haven't checked.
    Ali B

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  8. Thanks guys. It's good to know that I'm in great company with my opinions.

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  9. Definitely less is more. I don't describe anybody unless it's pertinent to the plot. But I write very very close into my characters. I've described other characters through my mc's eyes though because that shows us how he views the world in general. At one point I wrote that my female lead had tied her hair back and realised I hadn't even mentioned (or known/cared) that she had long hair and certainly not that it was any particular colour.

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