Introducing Characters to the Reader

Kaitlyn Dunnett  here, with a group topic gleaned from comments on a listserv I subscribe to. Someone who appears to like my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, commented that she found it annoying that I described each new character as they came on the scene in Scone Cold Dead. This remark took me aback, especially since I was under the impression that a few words of description to fix a character in the reader’s mind was a good thing. Hair color. Some physical oddity. How they dress, if it’s different from other people in some way. A “tell” or tick or characteristic speech pattern like adding y’know to the end of every sentence sets a character up for later development through action and dialog. Was I supposed to give a character a name and say nothing else about them?

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Okay, maybe I could have had a character toss her brown hair as she spoke instead of just saying she had hair the color of molasses, but I didn’t quite see this reader’s problem, especially when she went on to say, in later posts, that she’d noticed the same tendency in other books in Liss MacCrimmon series but that it hadn’t bothered her in those. Huh?

What made the comment stick in my mind, of course, was the fact that I was just starting a new book in the series at the time and had been actively looking for ways to describe each new character. Beginnnings are the vulnerable stage for most writers. You wonder how on earth you’re going to turn a ten page outline into a 300 page book. You’re sure everyone is going to find out the other novels were flukes and you can’t really write at all. So, naturally, I found myself wondering if I’d been getting character development all wrong all these years.

What do the rest of you think? When your sleuth first comes on the scene, how do you describe him or her for readers who may not have read earlier books in the series? And how much description and of what sort do you give other characters when they first appear?

Kate Flora: Interesting question, Kaitlyn. I think that my style is to distinguish my characters by “voice,” and attitude and then let the descriptions come in slowly as the story progresses. Even if you don’t know what Joe Burgess looks like, by the time he’s been on the scene for a page or so, the reader will have a strong sense of who he is, and he will, in turn, give a sense of those around him as they enter. But that’s easy, ‘cuz he’s a cop and he’s observant. And so much of it, for me, is in the inner narrative. I don’t say he’s getting older, but he might think “years ago, he could be up all night and still have energy in the morning. Now he felt drained, and had to dig deep for something to keep him going. Usually, it was anger at what he’d just seen. Anger was still good fuel.”

With Thea, it also tends to come in through attitude, but the descriptions often give back details about her, so if she says, my petite blonde partner, a reader can assume Thea is neither petite nor blonde. The judgment or compassion a character brings to bear on others, the language choices our characters make. I think it matters what degree of omniscience you’re using how you’ll approach this.

I sometimes think the bigger problem is not in the first book, but in subsequent books where we have to get in that basic information for the new reader while not boring the reader who has been following the series. How much do you refer to the husband who died? And for how many books, after he’s been supplanted by another love interest? How much can you say without giving away the plots of former books?

Of course, like you, I always wonder if I do write good books, or if I’ve just gotten away with it for the last twelve.

Lea Wait: I’m coping with that right now, writing the 6th in the Shadows series. No, I don’t want to describe each character again, but, on the other hand … any new readers will probably be curious about why Gussie’s in a wheelchair, and will need to understand that Ben has Down Syndrome. I include general information about everyone’s ages and professions , but don’t always mention the color of their hair. All of everyone’s past history isn’t critical, either, but in a couple of cases it is, because decisions the characters make are based on it. So as I’m finishing my draft I have notes to myself to go back and check to see that I’ve slipped in a few words to explain or describe. I often do that with sensory words; I’m bad about incorporating those in a first draft. Strangely, perhaps, I often have physical descriptions for minor, even nameless, characters (t”the bartender”) while my major characters are more defined by their words and actions.  Interesting topic!

Paul Doiron: Kaitlyn’s annoyed reader is the exception, I think. Most people appreciate the author doing the heavy lifting.

I’ve always envied those Rosemary Edmonds translations of Tolstoy I was supposed to read in college. They just dispensed with the problem of keeping the characters straight by providing a list of all the main players up front. So when you encounter Vasska Denisov for the third time you can just flip to the front and say, “Oh, yeah, Nicholas’s friend.” Some of Carolyn Chute’s books resort to the same stratagem—but Carolyn is Carolyn and can get away with those sorts of things. Generally, I describe every new character who appears on the scene, however briefly. It just seems odd to do it later after the reader has already begun conjuring up a mental image. My books come with fairly full casts of characters, so I have sympathy for the book buyer. It’s hard to keep all the cops and crackpots straight.

The one character I don’t describe in detail is my series protagonist, Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch. We know he’s six-feet two and relatively lean for a guy that tall. He has blue eyes and a scar along his hairline. But what color is his hair? That’s for the reader to imagine.

Vicki Doudera: Interesting, Paul. My series protagonist is an Asian American, but I do not want to beat readers over the head with her appearance. (Beautiful! Exotic!) I slip in a few words of description once or twice per book, but it’s pretty brief. This doesn’t necessarily happen the first time Darby appears. I find the other characters can comment on her “look” and it doesn’t seem like I’m doing it, so I think it’s more effective.

I think Lea hit the nail on the head (and the rest of us are touching on this) when she commented “major characters are more defined by their words and actions.”

Introducing new characters is tricky. I don’t want to write an old English heroic poem, but I want to give my readers a little something to go on. But again, very brief.

Julia Spencer Fleming: I’m also in the less-is-more camp when it comes to describing my characters. Since I write in close third person point-of-view, I almost always use one character’s thoughts and reactions to give the reader a picture of another character. In I Shall Not Want, I introduced a new major character to the cast, Hadley Knox. We initially see her arriving in Millers Kill after a cross-country trip from California. We know she’s young, because she has a nine and a six-year-old. When she meets Clare Fergusson for the first time, the priest asks her, “Were you…an actress? A model?” and later explains that Hadley’s haircut is “…trendy. You don’t see much trendy in Millers Kill.”

I like this approach because it tells as much about Clare, and about the town Hadley is coming to live in, as it does about Hadley’s appearance. Plus, I’ll disagree with Paul here. I like to leave lots of room for the reader’s imagination. I give you a few hints, and you fill in the picture. I always think of one of my favorite characters, Jack Reacher. Do we get any description of Reacher other than his height (6’5″) and his weight (north of 250 pounds)? Not really? Do I know what Reacher looks like? Oh, you betcha. (Hint: Not Tom Cruise.)

Jim Hayman:  I guess I’m somewhere in the middle of all this.  I’ll slip in some character description when it feels relevant to the scene.  But in three books (finally finished the third!) I’ve yet to describe McCabe physically (not even his height) since most of the stories are told from his point of view and he knows what he looks like.  Hopefully the readers have their own images of him.

Barb Ross: In a short stories I not only don’t describe the narrator unless it’s relevant to the story, I rarely give her a name. I think the voice can do all the heavy lifting.

With novels, as a reader I don’t care about the physical descriptions (I’m happy to fill in the blanks on my own) but I know other readers do, so I try to weave in some details if they aren’t obvious from the story–age, height, “style choices,” etc. One thing I do hate as a reader is when an author tells me something physical 2/3 of the way through the book when I already have my own picture. Don’t tell me the hero’s blond and 6’4″ on page 235, people!

Kate Flora: Thrilled that Jim has finished his book, and looking forward to reading it. Barb makes a great point about the information void–that if you leave too much to your readers, they will fill in the blanks, and then they’ll be annoyed with you if you finally give a description that’s at odds with what they imagined.

Now to a pet peeve about describing characters: when someone compares their character to a flavor-of-the-month young TV personality I’ve never heard of. Or the description is all in terms of trendy stuff (yes, Julia, trendy, something we don’t a whole lot of here or in Miller’s Kill) like the bag she carries or the watch he wears. Stiletto does it for me, I don’t need the Choo or Louboutin. But I guess I can just use that a sign that the book is probably not for me.

And we haven’t touched on that other problem: over description. Which brings to mind one of the great paragraphs from the Bulwer-Lytton “Dark and Stormy Night” contest:

“With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned,unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description.”

Paul Doiron: One idea that bears keeping in mind is that point of view is crucial here. Some of us write in the first person, others in the third. (And still others do both.) I think of my own protagonist, Mike Bowditch, as a noticer (as most good cops are) and as a storyteller. He’s recounting the events he’s experienced and relating them in a way that reflects his personality. Details are important to Mike, and he’s amused by the weirdness of human beings. So his descriptions of others characters are part of his characterization. (That’s one reason he doesn’t describe himself; it’s not his nature to dwell upon his own looks.) A famous example of this—in a cynical vein—is Phillip Marlowe. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I adore Chandler’s books for those wonderful descriptions of General Sternwood and Terry Lennox and all the other denizens of his city of fallen angels.

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6 Responses to Introducing Characters to the Reader

  1. John Clark says:

    I like using the eyes and interaction with the immediate environment. With my main character, Berek Metcalf, it was easy because he has an extra finger on his left hand. That, plus the fact that it allows him to do some pretty fierce magic, makes him easy to pick out in a crowd.

  2. Sarah Graves says:

    Oh, sorry I didn’t make it here in time to be in the group post, but I do have a comment — it’s that as a reader I care very little about the physical details except as they pertain to the psychological and/or emotional ones. Is the character playing against type? A dour face, picky about neatness, a nervous nellie type, yet with a kind and generous heart? Or is it Lisbeth Salander, whose insides match her outsides pretty well? Either way, description only annoys me unless it means more than its physical self. I want a sense of the person, not a photograph of him or her, you know?

  3. Great, great topic, and I love reading each author’s view. It was the topic on a recent thread in a private forum I’m part of, so clearly gives many an author food for thought, and a reader something to like or hate.

    I’m in the “less description” camp myself. I usually don’t do much at all, although details emerge when relevant to the plot. But I don’t mind reading description–although when it’s not there, it’s interesting to note that I usually have no less of a picture in mind…it’s just that I must’ve made it up!

  4. Jeanne says:

    I may have been the person referred to from DorothyL and I think I didn’t express myself well. I don’t mind straightforward description at all. What I notice is when it seems that an author is working hard to describe while trying to be casual about it, inserting bits of description in amongst other things: instead of “Jill stood 5’7″ with wavy, honey colored hair that brushed her shoulders when she wore it loose and hazel eyes that flashed when she was angry. Jack was six feet tall, with straight black hair, blue eyes, a long aristocratic nose and a military bearing” we get something like “Jill was five inches shorter than her boyfriend. He noticed her hair was honey colored, like most of the people in her family who were of sturdy pioneer stock, moving to this area from the northeast. They had been farmers and teachers. Her hair had waves like her grandfather, who had been a stout supporter of women’s rights from the first day he drew breath and his name was still blessed or cursed because of it. She worked at the local KFC, serving up the Colonel’s chicken with flare. They’d met there over the mashed potatoes and it had been love at the first pat of butter. Jack was so glad he’d decided to treat himself to bit extra. Now here they were working to solve a mystery. When she worked at the local KFC, her hair had to be tied back, though it escaped in little ringlets, but now she wore it loose so that the ends brushed the shoulders of the purple and green jumper she had on with the fringes that twitched as she moved. She’d had to tilt her head back to glare at his six foot frame where his straight black hair softly capped his aristocratic looking head. She had admired his posture from the first second she’d laid her hazel eyes on him. He had the same long nose as his mother who had been the first woman to enter the town’s annual rodeo. It had been started by the town’s founder, a lonesome cowboy who found his fortune in a silver mine but wasn’t cut out for the miner’s life so he had founded a town instead and married a school marm to start a family. The town sign was painted robin’s egg blue, which was just the shade of Jack’s eyes.” (This is in no way from any book I have actually read to the best of my memory– which is a bit dicey, I’ll grant!–and is exaggerated. Well, not so much for some books– not Ms. Dunnett’s– but that’s the idea.)

    Granted the reader is getting character bits in there, but some of the physical description seems shoe-horned in, especially if it goes on for several pages. It makes the physical seem forced instead of natural, as if the author is trying to think of a way to work in how tall someone is or the color of the heroine’s eyes instead of just stating it.

    If it was my comment that prompted this, let me also hasten to add that the only book I noticed this in was the second one, Scone Cold Dead, when little bits of physical description of returning characters seemed to be worked in over several pages. Me, I just prefer the straight-forward, get it out of the way approach– just yank that bandage off and move on.

    Sorry if I offended! I’m sure you know the old saying about opinions and everybody has one…

    • Hi, Jeanne,
      You didn’t offend. In fact, I owe you a double thank you, first for prompting me to take a closer look at one aspect of the way I write (always a good thing) and second for giving us a topic (always hard to think up) for a group post. Your opinions will always be welcome here.

  5. Sherry says:

    As a reader, I prefer getting character descriptions early in a book. I like (prefer/need) to know what someone looks like as I’m reading. But they aren’t my creations and I don’t want to figure out what they look like. I just want to read and enjoy.

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