Use Attitude When Introducing Characters

by Jodie Renner, editor and author  @JodieRennerEdCaptivate Your Readers_full

To celebrate the release of her third writing guide, Captivate Your Readers, Jodie has priced it at 99 cents for today only and will also be giving away 4 electronic copies – your choice of mobi (for Kindle), ePub (for other e-readers), or PDF – of this book, in exchange for an honest review by the end of March. Enter to win in the comments below.

A sure sign of a fiction writer who’s still learning his/her craft is when a character comes on the scene for the first time and the writer stops the story to describe the character from head to toe – height, build, hair color, eyes, other facial features, and all the details of their clothing, including colors, down to their shoes. Then the story picks up where it left off and carries on.

My latest writing guide, Captivate Your Readers, devotes four chapters to how to introduce and describe characters in a natural, intriguing way. The basic message is to stay in the protagonist’s viewpoint when introducing him, and describe other characters through the POV of the character observing them, not neutrally, as the author stepping in. Here, I’ll be discussing effective techniques for describing other characters through the observations and attitudes of the viewpoint character (most often the protagonist).

Whether you’re describing the main character or someone he/she is observing, readers don’t need or welcome a list of every physical attribute and what they’re wearing – readers want a quick glimpse into their personality and character, how they carry themselves, how they enter a room, the effect they have on others. The readers can easily fill in any details themselves – if they want to. As a reader, I want a general impression but not every tiny detail – I’m more concerned about what’s happening, the interaction between the characters.

Which brings me to my next point – the protagonist (or other POV character) is busy interacting with that person, in a scene with some tension (at least there should be!), so they don’t have time to detail everything the person is wearing and think about the color of their hair and eyes, their height, etc., unless these are details that really stand out. If the person is very tall or very short, very heavy or thin, overbearing or timid and apologetic, bombastic or shy, these are details the observing, viewpoint character will register right away and take note of, even react to internally. The most important thing is to keep it real – what would the POV character really be thinking at the time?

~ Show the essence of the character and his effect on those around him.

Rather than giving readers a long, detailed police line-up description of a character’s height, build, facial features, and clothing, it’s best to just show an immediate impression of the character, including his personality or state of mind, as perceived by the viewer, through a few well-chosen details. Then let the readers imagine the rest themselves.

Here’s an example of just giving the relevant info, and from the character’s point of view. This is from LJ Sellers’ Agent Jamie Dallas thriller, The Target. Cortez, a young police detective, is investigating a murder with his senior, an older detective named Hawthorne. We’re in Cortez’s point of view.

The older detective stood, so Cortez did too. Even with his rounded shoulders, Hawthorne’s Ichabod-Crane body type made Cortez feel short at five-seven. Next to his father and cousins, he was the tall one.

These three sentences give us quite a bit of information about the two characters, with almost no interruption to the action, and we stay firmly in the thoughts and observations of the character.

In The Shield, by Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore, the main character, a scientist, who’s a bit intimidated, watches as two powerful Russians enter the scene.

The general appeared quite physically fit, even for his age. The casual, open-collared shirt hid little of his muscular build, no doubt from years of setting an example as a leader of the Russian Army

“How was your flight?” asked Ivankov. Unlike the general, the Russian banker was portly and balding, and bore the veined, red nose of a heavy drinker. He, too, was dressed casually.

In these two short paragraphs, we get quite a complete picture of these two guys (who are minor characters in the story), including info on their past, lifestyle, and characters. We don’t really care what they were wearing, exactly, as we’re eager to find out what happens next in this power meeting. And it doesn’t feel like the author interrupting the story to describe these people; it feels like the character observing them.

In her novel, Hot Rocks, Nora Roberts describes the appearance of a stranger like this:

A heroic belch of thunder followed the strange little man into the shop. He glanced around apologetically, as if the rude noise were his responsibility rather than nature’s, and fumbled a package under his arm so he could close a black-and-white-striped umbrella.

Both umbrella and man dripped, somewhat mournfully, onto the neat square of mat just inside the door… He stood where he was, as if not entirely sure of his welcome.

We readers might all visualize this man a bit differently, to suit our own ideas of what he should look like, but we get an immediate impression of his timidity and hesitancy, which is all we really need at this point.

And here’s a depiction of a prematurely aging middle-aged woman that strikes to the core, with just a few masterful brush strokes. In Moonlight Mile, instead of saying, “She looked old for her age, with her white hair and wrinkles,” Dennis Lehane describes her like this:

I did some quick math and guessed she was about fifty. These days, fifty might be the new forty, but in her case it was the new sixty. Her once-strawberry hair was white. The lines in her face were deep enough to hide gravel in. She had the air of someone clinging to a wall of soap.

~ Show the viewpoint character’s feelings and reactions to the character he/she is observing.

Also, work in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the character. Is the narrator character impressed? Intimidated? Fearful? Attracted to them? Disgusted or repulsed?

For example, Brad Parks, in The Girl Next Door, describes the first-person narrator’s feelings about a love interest:

…in addition to being fun, smart, and quick-witted—in a feisty way that always kept me honest—she’s quite easy to look at, with never-ending legs, toned arms, curly brown hair, and eyes that tease and smile and glint all at the same time.

By contrast, the protagonist of Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile describes a spoiled rich kid who leaves victims in his wake without a second thought, as Mummy and Daddy will clean up after him. Here, the disgust of the observer character comes through loud and clear:

…Brandon wasn’t your run-of-the-mill rich kid asshole. He worked double shifts at it.

The investigator paid to spy on him goes on to describe the kid’s clothes:

Brandon wore a manufacturer-stained, manufacturer-faded hoodie that retailed for around $900 over a while silk T with a collar dragged down by a pair of $600 shades. His baggy shorts also had little rips in them, compliments of whichever nine-year-old Indonesian had been poorly paid to put them there.

Lehane’s astute investigator later describes a trophy-wife stepmother:

She had the look of a woman who kept her plastic surgeon on speed dial. Her breasts were prominently displayed in most of the photos and looked like perfect softballs made of flesh. Her forehead was unlined in the way of the recently embalmed and her smile resembled that of someone undergoing electroshock.

All of these descriptions paint a quick picture of the effect these characters have on the viewpoint character, the POV character’s immediate impression of them, without listing their height, build, hair color, and clothing, like a police line-up.

Do you have any examples or tips to add?

Jodie_June 27, '14_HighRes_squareJodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, at The Kill Zone blog alternate Mondays, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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34 thoughts on “Use Attitude When Introducing Characters

  1. I love complete but vague descriptions. I’ve read some novels that describe the characters in terms of the brand names on every piece of clothing. Yep, totally pulls me out of the story. I prefer character descriptions that incorporate the action or setting such as blinding flashes of gold off a wrist as he stretched out a hand in greeting as we approached the dock; or slid 501 jeans down his well shaped hips.

    I don’t think I could read and review by March 30, so I bought the book and will review on my own time table. Thanks for sharing these tips, and the guide.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dolorah. Those are great examples! I also like descriptions that give us a glimpse into their character and personality, and maybe their intent at the moment, like dressing up for an interview or to impress a date.

      Thanks in advance for a review of my book at a later date! :-)

  2. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Jodie.

    Jodie – Thanks for sharing your ideas on introducing characters smoothly and effectively. It is important I think not to interrupt the narrative; and when the characters comes into the story naturally, it feels more realistic.

  3. Thanks for these great tips for introducing characters. I teach a lot of writing workshops to teen writers and I’m always looking for ways to discourage laundry-list descriptions of their characters.

  4. Very good column – provoked many thoughts, both as a writer and reader.
    I hold Dennis Lehane in high regard and loved Moonlight Mile as well as his other works. Sometimes, though, he may use too much exposition. In my humble opinion, his description of the trophy-wife should have stopped after the first sentence, “She had the look of a woman who kept her plastic surgeon on speed dial.” Also his blurb on the middle-aged lady – stop after the second sentence. The following sentences trail and devolve into redundancy – they take away the strength of the first one (or two) and tell me something I already know.
    Raymond Chandler was a master at this (as is Lehane most of the time.) Chandler describes a lawyer’s briefcase by informing the reader that he got it from Noah, and Noah got it second hand. That’s all we’re given, and our imagination of the briefcase and the character is ensconced in our mind.

    …But… I loved his complete description of Brandon. Plus if writers used a less expository writing style, most books would be shorter…hum…and we would have time to read more books.

    1. Thanks so much for having me back on your excellent blog, Elizabeth! It’s always an honor and a privilege to be here!

      I should have mentioned that if anyone would like a free review copy of my new book, they should specify in their comment. That way I’ll know who’s interested.

      Also, I’m running an Amazon Giveaway this week on print copies of the book. It just started, so I’ll add the link here soon.

    1. I do, too, Alex. Everyone views characters differently, and that way readers are active participants of the process, not just receptors of information.

  5. Hi Jodie,
    I clicked on the link to this article, not realizing it was written by you. I ordered your book last week based on a recommendation by John Kurtze! Looking forward to getting it in the mail.
    Best,
    Kristi

  6. Reading this I knew that I needed your book, Jodie Renner – in fact this is not the first time I’ve felt that as read other posts. But this time I parted with the money, knowing that it ought to improve my writing. Thank you.

  7. Wow! Looks like the Amazon Giveaway of my print book is over. I specified one win per 40 entries, with 5 books given away, and that happened by 10 a.m. today!

  8. Great selections, Jodie. What strikes me the most is how Nora Roberts’s passage has so much more artistry than the rest. I’ve read several of her stand-alone mysteries (Angel Falls) and am always amazed at her craft.

    Peace, Seeley

  9. Good examples, with one exception, I think. The first one:

    Even with his rounded shoulders, Hawthorne’s Ichabod-Crane body type made Cortez feel short at five-seven.

    If we’re really in the viewpoint character’s head, I just don’t see him thinking in terms of Hawthorne’s Ichabod-Crane body type. That sounds too writerly to me. Sounds like the author putting in his say.

    Also, while LeHane is an excellent writer, how does the viewpoint character know this middle-aged woman with white hair once had strawberry hair if they never met. My point is, even the best writers cheat sometimes when it comes to character descriptions.

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your comments. I know someone who’s tall, thin, and gangly, and I can see myself thinking of him as having an Ichabod-Crane body. :-)

      And in the Dennis Lehane example, the viewpoint character did know the middle-aged woman a bit from the past. He hadn’t seen her for 7 years and she’d aged a lot in that time.

  10. Awesome tips and excellent examples – I smiled all the way through the post. I’m terrible at adding in description of what people look like – mostly because, for the most part, I don’t care :) Thankfully, I have crit buddies who remind me to add in bits like those above (although mine don’t have near this much polish & style!)

  11. Lots of great examples here. Thank you. I don’t like reading static description so I try not to write it. There’s a lot to learn here, and I’ve bookmarked this post.

    Hi, Elizabeth!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Carol. I don’t like static description, either – especially if it’s from the author’s POV, and doesn’t reflect the viewpoint character’s biases, preferences, and mood.

  12. Good stuff! Things we need to be reminded of as we hone our writing. It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the minutiae.

  13. Enjoyed the article and examples of good character description . I’m not a fan of too much description and Dennis Lehane has always been one of my favorite authors. His description, character intros and the POV character’s reaction to other characters is always top notch and believable.

    I pre-ordered your newest book, Jodi and am delighted that it is now on my Kindle and ready for me to devour.

    1. Yes, I agree that Dennis Lehane is a master, Melissa! I quote several passages from his novels in my Captivate Your Readers, with permission from his publisher.

      Hope you enjoy my book! Good luck with all your writing projects! :-)

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