I know I'm in my own little world, but it's OK.
They know me here...


Saturday, December 10, 2011

CRAFT: Weaving character descriptions into narrative

As a beginning writer one of the things I had trouble with was describing my characters, so the reader could form an impression of them, but without resorting to using cliched or boring descriptions or clunky narrative.

Cliched descriptions might include:
  • her lips were as red as rubies
  • he was tall, dark and handsome
  • she had long, red hair that fell to her waist
  • the color of his eyes reminded her of the sky
(and I'm sure you can think of others).

Clunky narrative reads like a checklist of attributes or something you read in an encyclopedia, eg. starting at the head and descending to the toes.

The downfall of doing it like this will do a couple of things to your writing. A heap of narrative inserted into the body of story runs the risk of slowing down the pace. And if it reads like an encyclopedia list of attributes it might also pull the reader out of your story.

But how can you insert character descriptions and avoid this? The best way - check out your fav.author's books to see how they weave it into their books.

Here's a few examples descriptive narrative from some of my favourite author's work.

EXAMPLE 1 - the first comes from Denise Rossetti's THE LONE WARRIOR (Ch.1)
Death padded in pursuit, slipping through the double shadows without a sound. Like the worst nightmare Mehcredi could imagine, except this was all too horribly real. How much longer she could elude him, the man with the hunter's face?
Panting, she glanced over her shoulder at the dark figure pacing behind. As he drifted from one patch of shadow to the next, something pale gleamed where the light of the Sibling Moons tangled in his black hair. Feathers worked into a long braid, and . . . bones?

Were they finger bones?
We're in Mehcredi's POV and she's fleeing from another person - see how we already have an impression of this person from this description yet it's part of the action, not a "laundry list" of features?

Denise has woven the description into the narrative and used a question to make it stand out.
The shock thrilled down her nerves, making her head swim and her vision blur, but her long legs carried her away at a swift, stumbling run, lurching down a narrow alley, deeper into the reeking slum the people of Caracole called the Melting Pot.
 Again - action coupled with a description, this time of Mehcredi - the inference is that she's tall.
Turning to fight never entered her head. Gods, she'd barely scraped through the First Circle tests as it was, and her first real commission for the Guild of Assassins had been an unqualified disaster. No, she wouldn't have a chance.
Mehcredi uses a curse-phrase "Gods", and from the way she thinks of herself we know she's not a very good assassin.
She couldn't hear his footfall, couldn't detect any movement, but his presence behind her was a tangible force. Every cell in her body sensed him with the animal instinct of the hunted—his predatory focus, the grim relish with which he anticipated her death.
See how her impressions of him tell the reader something more about him?
From her left came the frantic click of claws on the cobbles, a soft whining noise. That damn dog! She might as well wave a flaming torch above her head and be done with it.
"Get lost," she hissed, glancing around for something to throw. "Scat!" But the little animal only skittered aside, continuing to flank her.
Mehcredi twisted and doubled back. One hand pressed to the stitch in her side, she reeled around a corner and inevitably, there he stood, waiting pitiless. He wasn't a great deal taller than she was, but much broader. Lithe and strong and graceful, where she was long-boned and clumsy and doomed.
Narrative again, but this time Denise has drawn a comparison between her two characters so we get more of a description of both.
She opened her mouth to shriek, to plead, but long-fingered hands fastened around her throat.
One simple description in an action sentence.
As he slowly increased the pressure, digging painfully into the soft flesh under her jaw, the man smiled, lips pulling back from white teeth.
Same again.
The expression gave him an eerie, chilling beauty. He could have been an avenging angel or a handsome demon. Either way, those elegant brutal hands were the sure instruments of her death.
More narrative and from this we know this guy is good looking.

EXAMPLE 2 - from THE LONE WARRIOR by Denise Rossetti (Ch.1)
"Your skin is fine enough, I suppose. And your coloring is certainly unusual. Silver eyes are rare in the Isles and unknown in Trinitaria." He made his face bland. "You'd bring good creds in a southern slave market."
Denise uses dialogue this time to convey and build a physical description of Mehcredi.

EXAMPLE 3 - from RAPTURE by Jacqueline Frank (Ch.4)

Dae (the heroine) is confronting Magnus (the hero) over how he's to treat her.
"Because of that bitch that bit you?"
That made him smile for some reason. He supposed it was the way she stripped the bullshit away from everything and laid it all out the way it was. He could get used to that. Although he wasn't sure about the rest of Sanctuary.
"Yes," he agreed.
"Well, just keep in mind, I'm a whole new kind of bitch, okay? And I won't bite unless one of two things happens."
"I'm listening."
"First, you don't ever try to cut my balls off just so you can be top dog over me. I won't do it to you if you don't do it to me..."
Listen to the tone of Dae's dialogue - what's the impression you get here of her? Strong, a bit rough round the edges, a woman not afraid to stand up to someone?

The author has done this through the use of dialogue AND she's made it a part of plot in the story rather than as something entirely separate.

So, go dig out one of your favourite reads, analyze how the author inserted a description of their character, then try it out yourself.

Have fun!


  1. Great post as usual, Kylie. Hope you're not getting webbed feet over there.

  2. catching up on my blog reads Kylie, but love your posts - and Denise's writing is brilliant =)

  3. Gotta keep pulling the webbed feet out, Chris. Use 'em for a bit then put them away and get the boots out to mow the lawn - LOL!!!!

    Hey, Mel, you'd have a few posts to catch up on, eh? And yes! Denise's writing is brilliant - I love her work. :-)

  4. Great post, Ms. G! Love the description from Denise's book. Interesting to see the different ways to incorporate so much detail without info dump.

    Now I have to go find and read that book! :)


  5. Indeed you do - and once you do I bet you'll be a Denise Rossetti convert! I must also hook you onto her Phoenix Rising series - STRONGMAN is my favorite so far. :-)

  6. Hey, Kylie! Thanks for using me as an example. I'm really flattered that you'd pick me. Bless you!

  7. Denise, my pleasure - I think I've read TLW now about half a dozen times! :-) Love the characters.

  8. Great post Kylie. Very helpful. Thank you.