We’re so happy to welcome Margie Lawson today to share her writing wonderment with us. Margie will be speaking at the RWA National Conference in Anaheim next month, both at the Women’s Fiction pre-conference event and a session at the conference. Generous as ever, Margie is donating a lecture packet or a free class to one lucky reader who comments today. As if her information about writing fresh character descriptions weren’t enough!
by Margie Lawson
Note: Part of this blog is recycled from one I wrote last year. New material was added!
Writers often miss opportunities to WOW their readers. One way to WOW them is to write character descriptions that are fresh. Not just a fresh word. A fresh style. A fresh delivery.
Most writers describe a character’s physical attributes. Hair color. Hair style, Eye color. Height. Physique. Some authors slip in a personality trait. Always good.
Some character descriptions read like the writer is checking that item off their list. Nothing special. Nothing fresh.
There are a gazillion ways writers can describe characters. They can share several traits or just a few. Some authors weave character descriptions into the scene. They slip in traits across several paragraphs. They may add a few more descriptive details as the scene unfolds. Others prefer a few salient points and they’re done.
Some writers follow Stephen King’s advice. They provide a couple of fresh descriptors and let the reader fill in the rest.
In Stephen King’s words, from ON WRITING:
“Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.
I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like—I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
Stephen King is a master of writing craft. Consider his suggestions, and write your character descriptions the way that works best for you and your readers.
I’ll share some examples of character descriptions for your reading and analysis pleasure.
Lara Chapman is a 2012 RITA Nominee for her Y.A., Flawless. Lara is a Margie Grad and Immersion Master Class grad too.
“The once-buzzing classroom freezes. Standing in the doorway is the hottest guy I’ve ever laid eyes on. Golden brown hair cut just short enough to be stylish and a body I’ve only seen on television. Honest to God, the room has fallen dead silent while he looks at his schedule and compares it to the number on the door.
You can almost hear every girl’s thoughts.
Please be in this class.
Please take me to the prom.
Please marry me.
And every guy’s thoughts.
I hope he plays football.
I hope he plays baseball.
I hope he’s got a girlfriend and leaves mine alone.
When he looks up and finds everyone staring, he glances behind himself to see what they’re looking at. Realizing he’s the center of attention, he smiles, upping the charm of his rugged good looks when his slightly imperfect teeth are revealed.”
Elizabeth Essex is a 2012 RITA Nominee for her historical, ALMOST A SCANDAL. Elizabeth is a Margie grad and Immersion Master Class grad too.
“He had been eighteen years old and on the verge of taking his lieutenant’s exam the last time she had seen him, the summer her brother Matthew had brought him home to Falmouth. Col, they had called him. Six years ago, he had been long and lean, but by God, clad in the endless fall of his gray sea cloak, he was a leviathan now. A great oaken mast of a man looming up from the waist of the small boat.
A man grown. A man whose jaw looked as sharp as an axe blade and whose piercing eyes, the color of green chalcedony stone, were just as hard and impenetrable.
“Well, Kent?” Col’s voice was low and dangerously soft—disconcerting in such a hard-looking man. “What’s it to be?”
Darynda Jones is a 2012 RITA Nominee for her paranormal, Third Grave Dead Ahead. Darynda is a Margie grad too.
“I turned as Dad walked in. He’d come up from the bar by way of the inside stairs, which was fine, since he owned it and all. His tall, thin frame seemed to sag just a bit. His blond hair looked barely combed, and his bloodshot eyes were lined with a purplish hue. And not a pretty purple either. It was that dark grayish purple that depressed people wear.”
“Well built with shoulder- length brown hair intermingled with a streak or two of gray, a long mustache and goatee, and a strip of leather around his neck with a silver pendant, Farley proved to be one of those men in his late fifties who only looked in his late fifties up close.”
Kristina McMorris, LETTERS FROM HOME, Margie grad
Here are two weave-in-description examples from LETTERS FROM HOME, released March, 2011, a debut novel by award-winning author Kristina McMorris.
Reader’s Digest Select Editions features a condensed, book club version of LETTERS FROM HOME.
“With Morgan’s charcoal black hair and olive complexion, she questioned if he and the fair-skinned knucklehead were actually brothers.
“Evening,” Morgan said, the word barely audible. A fitted service shirt outlined his broad build. His facial features were of the average sort, but he had an allure about him, an unnamable quality Liz couldn’t dismiss.”
Shirley Jump, HOW TO LASSO A COWBOY – Bestseller Shirley Jump has 35 (or more) books published. Knowing Shirley, she probably has ten more novels contracted.
Shirley Jump is a Margie Grad.
“Mr. Jones,” Sophie Watson called to him from two houses down, her blond hair back in a loose ponytail, swinging along her shoulders.
Skipped a few sentences.
In those early morning moments, Harlan hadn’t done much more than say hello as he passed by. Sophie had seemed nice, friendly even, the first few times he’d encountered her. She was a beautiful woman, too, with delicate features and a penchant for skirts.
A few paragraphs later:
She’d kept coming as she’d talked and now she stood at the end of his walkway, that one hand on a hip that was cocked a little to the side, giving her a jaunty air. Coupled with the knee-length flouncy skirt she wore and the low-heels that gave her legs a sweet curve, it made a pretty picture, he had to admit.
Margaret Daley, TRAIL OF LIES. Last year, bestselling author Margaret Daley had 65 books published. She could have hit 70 by now.
Margaret Daley is a Margie Grad.
“He’d seen Melora Hudson, the widow, at her husband’s funeral a couple of days before. A picture of a five-foot, six-inch, willowy woman materialized in his mind. While she’d stood at the gravesite, her red hair with golden highlights had caught the sun’s rays, accentuating the long curls about her beautiful face-a solemn face, appropriate for a funeral. Until he’d locked gazes with her for a few seconds and something akin to fear had flashed into her sea-green eyes.”
Jaye Wells, GREEN-EYED DEMON. This is the third book in the Sabina Kane series. Silver-Eyed Devil will be released January 1st, 2012.
Jaye Wells is a Margie Grad.
“A mop of kinky mahogany curls cleared the top of the door. And below, a foot clad in a low-heeled black pump stepped onto the blacktop, followed by its twin. Next, a slender, milky hand with bloodied cuticles grasped the doorframe.
When the face came into view, my stomach dipped with dread. Persophone’s classically beautiful face didn’t feature a roman nose, two beady black eyes, or a butt-cleft shin. No, only one Domina was cursed with such mannish features.
Tana French, THE LIKENESS.
The last example is from award-winning author and stage actress in Ireland, Tana French. THE LIKENESS is her second novel.
This is one of my top-of-the-list character descriptions
“I’d been expecting someone so nondescript he was practically invisible, maybe the Cancer Man from The X Files, but this guy had rough, blunt features and wide blue eyes, and the kind of presence that leaves heat streaks on the air where he’s been.”
Here’s a Deep Editing Analysis of the example from Tana French in THE LIKENESS.
1. Fresh Writing: “ . . . the kind of presence that leaves heat streaks on the air where he’s been.”
2. Contrasted what she expected with what presented
3. Rhetorical Device, Allusion, twice: Cancer Man and The X Files
4. Rhetorical Device, Parallelism: “. . . rough, blunt features and wide blue eyes . . .”
5. Cadence-driven: Every word drives the reader into the next word. Read it out loud. You’ll train your Cadence Ear.
Six more words from Stephen King, from ON WRITING:
Good description is a learned skill . . .
FYI: My writing craft courses are loaded with material that teaches writers how to write fresh.
Writing fresh description, for characters and setting, gives your readers color and style and interest. Writing fresh description immerses your reader in the sensory elements of your story. Writing fresh description contributes to making your novel a page turner.
BLOG GUESTS: NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!
POST A COMMENT AND YOU MAY WIN a Lecture Packet or one of my online courses from Lawson Writer’s Academy!
I’ll post the name of the LUCKY WINNER on SUNDAY NIGHT, 9PM Mountain Time.
1. Post a comment – or just say “Hi Margie!”
2. Post an example of a fresh character description from your WIP or a fresh character description from one of your favorite authors.
3. Analyze one of the examples from the blog, all but the one I analyzed. ;-)
Post anything — and you could win a Lecture Packet or an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy.
Lawson Writer’s Academy now has 37 courses and 12 instructors. LWA courses are taught in a cyber classroom from my website, http://www.MargieLawson.com.
Margie Lawson —psychotherapist, editor, and international presenter—developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques used by writers, from newbies to NYT Bestsellers. She teaches writers how to edit for psychological power, how to hook the reader viscerally, how to create a page-turner.
Thousands of writers have learned Margie’s psychologically-based deep editing material. In the last seven years, she presented over sixty full day Master Classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
For more information on Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, full day master classes, and the 4-day Immersion Master Class sessions offered in Margie’s Colorado mountain-top home, visit: www.MargieLawson.com.