How to Describe a Character

One of my pet peeves is authors taking the easy way out when describing a character.

Dan Brown makes me grind my teeth every time he describes a character. He’s a master storyteller, but I wouldn’t call him a great writer. Here’s one of his descriptions of Robert Landon, the main character in Angels and Demons (parenthetical comments are mine):

“Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an “erudite” appeal (whose quote? When did he ever hear that, when did ANYONE ever say that?)—wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer; a toned, six-foot physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.”

Argh! How was this trip ever published? He goes on:

“Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma—a man caught between centuries. On weekends, he could be seen lounging on the quad in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with students (of course he would! He’s so cool and hip and trendy!); other times he could be spotted in his (wait for it) Harris tweed and paisley vest (gag!), photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.”

By this point, I’m tearing out my hair. But there’s more:

“Although a good teacher and strict disciplinarian (of course), Langdon was the first to embrace what he hailed as the “lost art of good clean fun.” (Again, whose quotes and when was it ever said? If not, why the quotes?) He relished recreation with an infectious fanaticism that had earned him a fraternal acceptance among his students (in reality, they would have mocked him for trying, at 40, to be one of them.) His campus nickname—“The Dolphin”—was a reference both to his affable nature and his legendary ability to dive into a pool and outmaneuver the entire opposing squad in a water polo match. (Baloney!)

Those three paragraphs would work for an author’s notes about a character, but they never should have made it to the page in that way. First, because it’s dreadful writing, and second, because it is the author intruding into the story in order to describe the character. Otherwise, who else is giving that description?

Poor writers think it’s necessary to describe characters immediately upon first introduction. “Clive walked into the bar, wearing a dashing turtleneck, flannel slacks, and a woolen blazer. His dark hair was carefully parted, but tousled at the sides, a sign that, while he cut a dashing figure, he didn’t really care about appearances. He scrutinized the crowded bar, his piercing eyes searching for the beauty he planned to conquer that evening. He spied her at the teak-and-brass bar and sauntered over, his thin, athletic body weaving among other guests, oblivious to his own sexual appeal.”

Yes, you can retch. I’m recalling a scene from the Modern Family TV show, and writing a description. A purposefully awful description. True, we know what he looks like, and a bit about how he moves in his world, but the writing is pedestrian. It has no flair, and once again the author is intruding into the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, this is how a master describes a character:

“Sister Rolfe saw that the detective had just come in and taken up his tray at the end of the line. She watched the tall figure, disregarded by the chattering queues of nurses, as he began to move slowly down the line between a white-coated houseman and a pupil midwife, helping himself to roll and butter, waiting for the girl to hand out his choice of main course…. Her eyes followed him as he reached the end of the line, handed over his meal ticket and turned to look for a vacant seat. He seemed utterly at ease and almost oblivious of the alien world around him. She thought that we was probably a man who could never imagine himself at a disadvantage in any company since he was secure in his private world, possessed of that core of inner self-esteem which is the basis of happiness…. Probably he would be thought handsome by most women, with that lean bony face, at once arrogant and sensitive.”

That’s PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale, having one character observe the main character, Detective Adam Dalgliesh. I’ve gone through PD James’s Dalgliesh books and have underlined everywhere she describes him, and I was amazed at the paucity of instances where she has done so. Yet he is so vivid in my mind! Physically and psychologically, I feel I know what he looks like and who he is. Any description of him is from afar, from another character, never something he thinks about himself. It’s description, with judgment, given by another character. That’s why it works.

Michael Chabon, in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, has numerous excellent character descriptions. Here’s one:

“Menashe Shpringer, the criminalist working the graveyard shift, blows into the lobby in a black coat and fur hat, with a rattling of rain. In one hand Shpringer carries a dripping umbrella. With the other he tows a chrome caddy to which his black vinyl toolbox and a plastic bin, with holes for handles, are strapped with bungee cord. Shpringer is a fireplug, his bowed legs and simian arms affixed to his neck without apparent benefit of shoulders. His face is mostly jowl and his ridged forehead looks like one of those domed beehives you see representing Industry in medieval woodcuts.”

Ask yourself, why does this work? How does it differ from the Dan Brown examples?

Descriptions don’t have to be long and detailed. Simple line-drawings work, as well, as in this character description also by PD James in Shroud for a Nightingale:

“The door opened, letting in a shaft of light from the passage. Miss Angela Burrows jerked back the curtains, surveyed the black January sky and the rain-spattered window and jerked them together again. ‘It’s raining,’ she said with the gloomy relish of one who has prophesied rain and cannot be held responsible for the ignoring of her warning.”

I know instantly that Miss Angela Burrows would not be my first choice for a holiday companion.

As you read, study how various authors introduce and describe their characters. Notice the pacing of those descriptions in the book, when and where and how they occur. Learn from the masters how to do it artfully.


I’ll end with one of my favorite, by Herman Melville in Moby Dick:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Put Away the Phone and People Watch

I’m headed for the airport in a couple of hours and am looking forward to the wait for my plane. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that I will put that time to good use, by people watching.

As a writer, you must make time to people watch, to observe the pantheon of characters within your orbit, wherever you are. Keep a notebook handy and jot down little notes about the folks who drift past you on the tide of humanity. (If you don’t write these down, at least store them in your long-term memory until you have the chance to record them.)

Note clothing, postures, relationships, unspoken communication, facial expressions, accents, attitudes — all of which are elements to put into your characterization tool box. How do young lovers stand, walk, or sit by each other? How do middle-aged couples do the same? And the elderly? What do you see in the elderly that is also in the young couple in love? Why might those elements have lasted into old age? What do they tell you about the people, the relationships, the quality of love?

How do you get a sense of personality or mood from a person’s posture or gait? What assessment do you make of a woman who wears a lot of makeup? of a woman who wears little or none? Of a man who plucks his eyebrows? Now, think. WHY do you make those assessments? Write down your answer.

Listen for accents or turns of phrase, but be aware that writing in an accent is a challenge, both to the writer and to the reader. What you want is a “taste” of the accent, a saying or phrase that gives you the sense of “Other,” of foreignness or dialect.

My favorite are the eyes. I like to watch how people use their eyes, and what their eyes say about them. Wide open, half-cocked, drowsy, side-darting — all of these can say something about the person, beyond just physiognomy.

So, put away your phone, your iPad, and your other electronic devices and people watch. It’s what will make your fiction come alive!

Character Descriptions (pt. 2)

When you describe a character (age, height, weight, hair color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), you are creating a characterization. The characterization is all the surface information that is know about a person (in addition to the above: schooling, social class, employment, etc.).

But the True Character is defined by the choices the character makes under pressure. For example, you can describe a successful businessman who is happily married, has children who are doing well in school and in sports, and who has a world of opportunity still opening before him. You describe him as the kind of guy any team would want on their side, the man you would choose for a neighbor, the fellow who would be selected as the jury foreman.

But what happens to this man when his world falls apart: one of his children is kidnapped, for example. Will he remain calm, focused, in control? or will he fall apart? make rash decisions? put others in harm’s way to help the one?

It is moments like these that define True Character.

When you are creating the characters for your book, start with plot…know who must do what in the story to give it drama, or humor, or suspense. Then people the book, but don’t create cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes…unless you plan to stand those stereotypes on their heads.

Do the unexpected with your characters. Remember the mother-in-law who lives with the successful businessman? The character you may have thought was just filler, rounding out the background for this stand-up guy who even lets his wife’s mother live with them? What if, as he begins to fall apart, she steps forward to lead the way, providing the strong shoulder and clear thinking required in the circumstances?

By the end of the story, we should know the True Character of each of your cast, and none of the primary characters should remain as they started. All must change. That is story. That is character development.

Character Descriptions

In July, I teach a new class at UCSD Extension, “Creating Memorable Characters.” I’m excited about this class because I believe passionately that characters make a novel. You can have a great plot, a great story, but any great plot or story is diminished by cardboard characters. Take Dan Brown’s books. Gripping, fun rides, but can you describe the characters in anything but caricatures? (No fair using Tom Hanks et al. I’m talking from the books.)

I’ve recently read several novels in which the authors feel the need to describe every character we encounter: hair and eye color, height, weight, body build, etc. Is this really necessary? Can’t they leave something to the reader’s imagination?

For example, if I were to describe someone as a New York thug, I believe I’ve covered the territory. My idea of a NY thug may not be the same as yours, but I’ve allowed you to imagine the character as you choose.

Sometimes, you don’t even need a physical description. If I give my villain #2 a lisp, you can provide the rest. The lisp gives you something to hang on to. It gives you a taste of who this fellow might be. It’s up to you to decide whether that lisp makes him crueler than he might otherwise have been, or whether it gives him a sensitive side, an ability to identify with vulnerability. As an author, I can make use of something like a lisp much better than I can make use of his being 5-foot-1o and blonde.

If size, shape, coloring, and race don’t matter, don’t tell the reader the stats. If you do tell, make sure to use that information at some point. In my current piece under development, my main character is sort of short. This matters for two reasons: 1) her partner is extremely tall, and 2) her height will make a difference in the story. But if she had been of average height, why would I need to state that, unless it proved important in the story?

Characters bring a story to life. A writer must see the characters in order to flesh them out, but the reader doesn’t need a snapshot of each character who filters through the story. If you write a description, make it mean something.

Colonel Sanders wore a white suit and sported a white goatee. There was a reason for that. It told us something about him. But telling us that Rahm Emanuel wears a suit means nothing, unless we are told that it is a suit that sells for multiple thousands of dollars and he pairs them with off-the-shelf shoes because of his bunions. THAT is a reason to describe his suits.

More on characters in my next posting.