A Look at Masterful Character Description

We began this series on masterful writing last week by taking a look at James Lee Burke’s wonderful character descriptions. All too often writers—beginning and seasoned—skimp on description. Or if they do manage a few lines, they’re uninspired, boring, or laden with stereotype. Good writing—masterful writing—takes hard work.

But it’s not just effort that’s involved. More than effort is needed to craft masterful description. Description is more than what the eye sees. It involves making judgments, coming to conclusions, forming impressions. Since our descriptions must be filtered through our POV character’s mind and heart, instead of thinking of description as a laundry list of items (hair color, eye color, shoe brand), they should reveal just as much, if not more, about our POV character as the person (or place or animal or food—anything) being described.

Think how differently you might approach describing a character who walks into a room if you focused more on the one witnessing than the one being described.

I mentioned in the last post that you must truly know your characters through and through. You must create deep, rich, complex characters full of experience, opinions, tastes, beliefs, sensibilities, prejudices, wounds, knowledge, and so much more. If you don’t, you can’t mine deeply into description fully in POV.

Here are some questions you could ask as you begin to think about describing a character in the scene. If your POV character has never seen this person before, ask:

  1. How can I filter the immediate impression of this person through my character’s present mood and situation?
  2. How can I draw on my character’s upbringing, beliefs, prejudices, and experiences to form a specific opinion based on little details he notices?
  3. What would my character immediately notice that would stand out about this person and why? What conclusions/thoughts would this generate?
  4. How can my description reveal or hint at something important in the scene?

Ask these questions if your character has had previous encounters or a relationship with the character:

  1. How can I reveal my character’s true feelings about this person by what he/she notices right away?
  2. What does my character notice about this person that is new or different and creates an emotional reaction because of it?

Of course if you’ve already shown various characters in your novel interacting with your POV character, you aren’t going to describe them every time. In fact, after the initial description you may not describe them at all other than what your character notices. Why would he notice something about someone he sees all the time?

Better question is what would he notice? Well, anything out of place. Anything that’s significantly changed.

Your POV character might be all about fashion, so she will notice the different outfits and shoes and hairstyles her friends have each time she sees them. A guy who owns only Levis and dark T-shirts isn’t going to pay attention to what the guys are wearing when they pick him up to go to the baseball game . . . unless something stands out as incongruous.

In other words, your character is really only going to pay attention to the things that matter to her. Or that stand out as odd or different.

You can certainly apply this type of questioning to other elements in your scene, such as a situation (watching a fistfight break out, for example), an animal (a wolf that comes limping alongside his car), or the weather (out in a lightning storm). In other words, description should be revealing more about your POV character than about what is being described.

When you understand this, it changes your approach to writing description. Description now becomes a highly valuable vehicle for revealing things about your character, and that can include his past (backstory) as well as his possible intentions going forward. The way your character describes someone or something can create mystery (the reader wondering why she paid so much attention to the man’s pendant) or tension (the choice of words can imply strong negative emotions, hinting at confrontation). There is so much mileage you can get out of great description.

Let’s take a look at some more excerpts of character description from Burke’s novels (before we get into describing setting and other things). Pay attention to the little details he has his POV character notice. Pay attention to what the description says about his own personality and views. You could say “what we pay attention to says a lot about who we are.” Take advantage of that in your fiction.

More from Wayfaring Stranger:

Dalton Wiseheart’s appearance was deceptive. When we walked out on the veranda, he was dozing in a swayback straw chair, his booted feet up on the rail, a battered cowboy hat over his face, his body half in shadow. One of his aides touched him on the shoulder and told him we were there. His face was as plain as a bowl of porridge. The nose was bulbous and pitted, the teeth long, the bottom lip protruding, as though snuff were tucked inside it. He wore khakis and a long-sleeved denim shirt and wide suspenders, and he had a stomach that made me think of piled bread dough. He took a dark blue handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose in it.

This powerful, rich, influential man presents an appearance to Weldon (the POV character) that seems at odds with what he’s heard about him. He notices the posturing (read: lazy, unambitious), the unremarkable, even unattractive facial features (read: off-putting instead of well-groomed and handsome), the plain clothes. The allusion to bread dough implies soft, mushy, unformed, as well as unconcerned about his appearance. The final touch—the man blowing his nose—adds just the right sour impression of this less-than-impressive man.

Why these details? Because Weldon Holland is expecting something different, so he notices the things that seem odd or unexpected. That sketch an overall picture of this man in just seconds of time.

First impressions are powerful. They are often intuitive. In a few seconds, we pick up so many signals, so many details, some unconsciously, that help form a first impression. Some people say first impressions are always correct. I found Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink extremely insightful. In it, he discusses what contributes to this intriguing ability we have of accurately sizing something or someone up in the blink of an eye, relying only on that first impression. Consider reading it. It may help you with your character descriptions.

I’ll finish here with one more character description from Wayfaring Stranger. I plan to share a lot of passages from Burke’s novels. He is a master of description, and there is so much writers can learn from his books.

There’s a group of men in Texas you have probably never met. I hope you never do. Contrary to the biblical admonition, you will not know them by their deeds but by their western dress and coarse speech, their nativism and misogyny. They often wear long mustaches and do not shave for several days at a time. The decals on their vehicles proclaim their politics and might contain a message of warning to the incautious. They may be as lithe as a buggy whip or as unhealthy in appearance as a washtub of clabber milk. The reality is they’re poseurs and thespians. With rare exceptions, they’ve never busted broncs, ridden drag on a cattle herd, shoved their hand up to the armpit in a cow’s uterus, gone eight seconds to the buzzer at a fairground, roofed a house in an electrical storm, been stirrup-drug through a dry riverbed, or huddled in a cellar while a tornado ripped the house off its foundation and funneled livestock into the sky. Their symbols of power are their trucks and their firearms. They shoot deer at salt licks and on game farms and take enormous pride in the trophies they hang on their walls, all of which assure them they are the givers of death and will never be its recipient.

They came at dawn, perhaps twenty of them, armed with shotguns and lever-action Winchesters, fanning out from their vehicles, the ground fog puffing whitely around their knees, some of them with badges of auxiliary lawmen clipped on their hand-tooled belts. I wondered if they had any idea how many tactical errors they committed, slamming truck doors, calling out to one another, approaching an adversary with the sun in their eyes, their chrome-plated belt buckles glinting like the crossed bandoliers on the British Redcoats our ancestors potted from two hundred yards away.

I hope this passage wowed you. Without even having read the novel up to this point, which, as you might have guessed, is part of the big climax, with the bad guys coming to kill Weldon, you learn an awful lot about the protagonist. It’s clear he’s the real deal. He’s been through those trials that those fake men haven’t experienced. He looks on their posing as not just fake but detestable and dishonorable. Very deliberately he thinks of how these kinds of men are proud of their kills: deer shot at salt licks. They are about to kill him and brag what a great kill they made.

In earlier chapters, we watch scenes from Weldon’s time in WWII. Grueling, heroic moments that define him as a “true” man and hero, not like these idiots. Weldon, watching them arrive through the window of a house, spots all their careless mistakes they make due to ignorance and arrogance. Mistakes Weldon would never, ever make. They have no idea who they are coming up against.

Burke could have described this group of men in a very different way. A beginning or lazy writer might detail the men’s clothing, weapons, expressions in a factual way. But that would tell us nothing about the POV character’s attitude and personality. This passage is all about Weldon and really very little about the men.

Yes, this is first-person POV, but that doesn’t ensure a “personalized” description. Neither does third-person POV preclude the ability to craft description just as powerfully and masterfully as in first person. Don’t let that trip you up.

I hope you are getting inspired. Why not try writing some character description with these points in mind? Ask those questions and answer them by crafting masterful description.

More to come next week. Thoughts? What stands out to you as masterful in these excerpts? What are you gleaning from this? Share in the comments!

Featured painting by artist Ali Cavanaugh. See her beautiful work at her website!

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  1. This was wonderfully helpful! I only got halfway through before I dove back into my NANO novel and tweaked the two protagonists’ introductions. I’m always frustrated by wanting some sense of how they look to others while knowing they wouldn’t think about how they look. This helped me convey the point without breaking POV.

    Thank you!

  2. These passages are absolutely splendid. Thank you for this series-it’s inspiring to see what can be done. I always benefit so much more from actual examples of great writing than from “do this, do that” instruction.

  3. I agree with the above three ladies. This is a great post, and yes I took notes. To rephrase in a nutshell, you are saying that the description in stories says more about the person describing something/one than it does about that person or thing. Right?

    I’ve shared your post online. Thanks again!

  4. Thank you for a most informative post. I have been wondering how to make my character descriptions more informative and less cliché. I also struggle with description. Filtering description through the POV character’s perception makes a lot more sense than what I’ve been doing which is to ask, “How do I describe the object or person? What does the object or person look like to me?” I then try to write the description from my perspective, which often doesn’t work.

    1. There you go, Renee.

      Have you ever seen a woman so beautiful that you didn’t even feel like you and she were the same species?

      That’s how I felt when I read Wayfaring Stranger. This guy’s a writer, an elevated species. Takes a while to get over that feeling. Not get over it exactly, just recover enough to approach a keyboard again.

      Absolutely great post, Ms. Lakin. Well analyzed and presented. Thank you.

  5. Thank you so much for doing this series on your blog! It has been so insightful and is really what I need right now as I’m working on my novel!

  6. Ms. Lakin, I’ve recently discovered you and your wonderful posts. This particular one is special since it was posted on my 78th birthday. I’ve been writing for a bit over a year, and I felt lost until I discovered your easy to follow and understandable posts.

    The example you used from Wayfaring Stranger hit very close to home. I went to school with some of those boys, or know them personally. Burke’s character descriptions are masterful.

    Just wanted to say hello and let you know what I think of your shared information. You are very generous as well as one who appears, from your writing style, your down to earth way of writing, your knowledge, as well as being well-studied and well-learned (?), to be someone who knows what they are talking about. I look forward to following you on this site.

    Happy trails, John

  7. If I brought that passage with the Goya reference to my critique group, they would criticize the Goya reference as being something most readers would not relate to.
    I think the addition of the Christlike description makes it understandable to all. I good way to subtly include all readers. Very well done.

  8. (What do I call you? CS?) This is one of the most helpful, revelatory, eye-opening posts about writing I’ve read in a very long time! I love it! Thank you. I’ll be a regular visitor from now on.

    I began a new follow-up story before I even finished this post; that’s how much it inspired me. (Now I just need to finish it…)

    “They shot deer at salt licks.” Those few words show us so much about these guys, and–as you say–about the POV character.

    Thanks for the recommendation on James Lee Burke. I’m going to try to get hold of one of his books. Any recommendations on his best?

    1. Hi, you can call me Susanne or C. S. Or Bob. Whatever! Glad you enjoyed the post. I have been reading all Burke’s Holland family books (I love them all) because I write Westerns and these are set, mostly, in Montana. He has a huge series set in New Orleans (I believe), but I haven’t read those.

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