Describing Characters

Wow, crazy week. I’m in the midst of revisions to The Beggar’s Opera (about a third of the way through the first cut) but things have been incredibly hectic, which means I’ve been working away on the manuscript whenever I have a few minutes, trying to fit writing around my real estate career.

I had this idea that I’d have a relaxed January and February to work on revisions as these months are typically the downtime in real estate. Needless to say, I’ve been completely caught off-guard by how busy it’s turned out to be, probably due to recent changes to the mortgage rules that have pushed buyers into the market early.

Three sales in the past two weeks and a ton of showings haven’t left me much time to catch my breath, but somehow, I’ve managed to carve out some time to work on revisions.

The revisions process has made me think about my characters more carefully, particularly their physical appearance, which I had deliberately left rather vague, in part because I still haven’t fully figured out in my own mind what my characters look like.

My lead character, Ramirez, is descended on one side from Afro-Cubans (his grandmother was a Yoruba slave) but his mother was American. I have an impression of him more than a concrete image. I know he’s tall, and smooth in that Latino way, and somewhat elegant — the kind of man who can wear a fedora and get away with it (think of Raul Julia) but he could just as easily be black as mixed race or Spanish.

It reminds me of The Bone Collector. When the movie came out, I was surprised that Denzel Washington played the lead until I read the book a second time (it’s one of my favourites) and realized that Jeffrey Deaver had actually never described his character’s ethnicity or even all that much about his physical appearance. His protagonist was a brilliant, handsome man in a wheelchair; that was about it.

On the other hand, he described the female cop who worked with him as red-headed with an itchy scalp that she scratched whenever she was nervous, one of those great details that one tended to remember.

Ernest Hemingway almost never gave a description of the characters in his books. His writing was spare (he claimed it was harder to write simply, which I agree with). Women were women, men were men and old men were old men. And that was about it.

I have a feeling I’m somewhere between those spare, almost non-existent details that characterized Hemingway’s work and the very detailed descriptions that some authors provide. (Think of Larsson’s Salandar, for example. We know her hair colour and cut, her weight, her style of clothes, even the colour of her tattoos. Fortunately, the movie makers have found actors that closely match that depiction,  much like in the Harry Potter movies, although that isn’t always the case. Quite often I leave a movie disappointed because the character bears no resemblance to the one I imagined from the book).

So what do you think – should you give detailed descriptions of your characters, or provide only a few, telling details, like Deaver did, or like Hemingway, leave it to your readers to use their imagination?

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4 Responses to Describing Characters

  1. Beth McColl says:

    Having read one of your early drafts, I formed pretty good impressions of several of your characters, although Ramirez was not one of those. Some of your characters’ appearance is, however, quite germane to the story. I think that is a good thing — give a good description where their appearance matters to the story line, and be suitably vague elsewhere. Provides more casting flexibility, when the movie comes along…

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  2. Very interesting, Peggy. I have a young soldier as my protagonist in a Canadian Army mystery series by name of Donlad ‘Rabbi’Hawkins. The only description of him is from himself, “The army took most of my hair, what they had left was a black mop. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the Beatles had stolen my look. The rest of me was okay.”

    I have had this sense that my readers can operate on very little character description and build him in their heads the way they want. The only time I think you need description is when the lead is describing people. The only time the lead character needs describing is if his physical description plays a role in the story. A midget hit man, a giant, one armed man.
    Thanks for the blogs and I just saw that youtube of the publisher/author – hilarious.

    Take care, Jim Miller,
    Parksville, BC

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  3. Peggy Blair says:

    Thanks, Jim — I tend to agree that less is more. Imagination is a wonderful thing. It’s nice (I think) when an author lets their readers use one. Although it’s also pretty great when you talk to a reader and find out that despite your sparse details, they ‘read’ the character the way you intended.

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