Friday, February 8, 2013

Character Descriptions

One of my favorite ways of improving my writing is to study authors who are particularly good at what they do. One thing that struck me when I read Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane was his character descriptions. They're unusual and remarkably vivid. They don't just describe what the character looks like, but usually give a glimpse of his or her personality as well.

Here's an excerpt from Lehane's Moonlight Mile to show you what I mean:

He was a small guy, wiry and bearded. His baseball cap, cotton hoodie, and battered jeans were streaked with grime. The ripe odor coming off him told me it had been a while since he'd bathed. He didn't have nut-bag eyes, though; there was no meanness in him, no crackhead edge.

Can't you just see this guy (and smell him)? I may not know his exact eye color or hair color, but what I do know about him tells me far more. I already feel like I'm getting to know him in just four sentences.

Do you have a favorite author for character descriptions? Have you read any of Lehane's books, maybe Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone?

24 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Nut-bag eyes. I'm going to remember that for a very long time!

Jessica Bell said...

I love character descriptions that tell us just enough to form our own image of them. This is a good one.

But, is it just me, or could this line, "The ripe odor coming off him told me it had been a while since he'd bathed" do with a bit of a do-over? I find it full of unnecessary words. Perhaps something like, "His ripe odor screamed through his grime." would have been more effective? But that's just my editor in me coming out to play!

DEZMOND said...

I've always loved writers who knows how to describe and who feel the story they're writing with all the people living in it.

Jennifer Shirk said...

That;s a great description. It's such a fine line. I love descriptions that give me just enough without beating me over the head with detail.

Kimberly Franklin said...

Haha. I love the "nut-bag eyes" description. I would definitely remember that. Ha!

Brian said...

It is wonderful when the characters pop to life before your eyes!

Robyn Campbell said...

Bodacious Susan. I have not read this yet, but now feel the need to run to Amazon and order this. Thanks for showing us. I love books with SUPER character descriptions. This is how we hone our craft. And personally, I think the description is perfect as is. *waving*

mshatch said...

I have not read Lehane but I've always appreciated the way Stephen King describes some of his characters.

Here's something from my latest read, describing Ronan: ...he wore the Aglionby uniform, but, as always, he managed to make it look as disreputable as possible. His tie was knotted with a method best described as contempt and his shirt-tails were ragged beneath the bottom of his sweater.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

Great characterization. Here's one of my favorites: ". . .a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty." Shculberg's What Makes Sammy Run.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great description! I think it's a real art to write good description. It's so much more than eye and hair color.

Happy Weekend!

Stephen Tremp said...

I like one paragraph descritpions of characters. It helps get to know them better right away. Yeah, I can smell him. Time to open the window here.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great description. This is something I have to work at. I usually give a few key details and let the reader imagine the rest. If I were to read this description in a book, by the time the character showed up again, unless we're given a reminder, I would have forgotten his small, wiry, and bearded.

Jemi Fraser said...

That is an awesome description! I like the fact that it's done in so few words :)

The Golden Eagle said...

Short but very descriptive--thanks for sharing the excerpt. It's a great example.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great description....you really made me realize there is more than hair and eye colors...

Cindy said...

It's funny you mention this because a few days ago I came across these character descriptions..you know, from the Greats.
http://io9.com/5823291/great-character-descriptions-from-science-fiction-and-fantasy-books

DL Hammons said...

Mystic River was one of my favorites!! :)

Nas said...

That is such a vivid description. I love reading books where the character descriptions really make you see the person and what's in his mind.

Carol Riggs said...

Definitely can smell this one. ;o) I haven't read SHUTTER ISLAND, but I do like unusual descriptions that show personality!

Lynda R Young said...

I love descriptions like that because people are so much more than just their visual appearance.

Medeia Sharif said...

That's fantastic description.

I can always picture Stephen King's characters clearly in my mind.

Cherie Reich said...

"Nut-bag eyes." That definitely gave me an idea of the character. :)

Deniz Bevan said...

I know exactly how you feel - read Stephen King's 11/22/63 over the weekend and boy does he know how write three dimensional characters. To the point where, when suddenly two characters from a previous book appeared, I got all excited, as if I was meeting old friends.

Jackee said...

Nut-bag eyes really sticks with you! Haven't read any Lehane. I think they might be a little too intense for me. :o) But he seems like a great writer!