How do I write effective character descriptions? (part 1)

DF02-FoolMoon-2001paperback

Creating effective character descriptions can be difficult. You can bore the reader with too much description, but if it’s used effectively, it can be a powerful tool. In this example, Jim Butcher uses character description to build tension, illuminate his characters, set a consistent tone for the novel, and tell us about the protagonist.

This example is from Fool Moon, the second novel in the Dresden Files series. The book follows the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard and detective, as he solves supernatural cases.

The first description is of “Gentleman” Johnny Marcone, a mob boss. (He has a great name, doesn’t he?)

Marcone had eyes the color of old, faded dollar bills. His skin was weatherworn, with an outdoorsman’s deep tan. Creases showed at the corners of his eyes and mouth, as though from smiling, but those smiles were rarely sincere. His suit must have cost him at least a thousand dollars.

There are a few phrases in this paragraph that strike me as having particular significance:

Marcone had eyes the color of old, faded dollar bills…His suit must have cost him at least a thousand dollars.

Not only are these two details great visual cues, they also reveal Marcone’s character. They show us a man who is driven by money, and who has been very successful in acquiring it.

Creases showed at the corners of his eyes and mouth, as though from smiling, but those smiles were rarely sincere.

This sentence tells us exactly what kind of mob boss Marcone is. He’s the kind of guy to smile at you one moment and shoot you the next. It works effectively in this scene because he’s offering Harry a deal, but this line reminds us that just because he’s smiling doesn’t mean he won’t bust your knee.

The next paragraph describes Hendricks, Marcone’s thug.

From behind him, Mr. Hendricks looked like an all-star collegiate lineman who hadn’t been smart enough to go into the pros. Hendricks’s neck was as big around as my waist, and his hands were big enough to cover my face–and strong enough to crush it. His red hair was buzz cut, and he wore his ill-fitting suit like something that he planned to rip his way out of when he turned into the Hulk. I couldn’t see his gun, but I knew he was carrying one.

Here are a few of the lines that stood out to me:

Hendricks’s neck was as big around as my waist, and his hands were big enough to cover my face–and strong enough to crush it.

The paragraph about Hendricks, and this line in particular, are great tension builders. Not only do we see how big and strong Hendricks is, with a neck as big around as Harry’s waist, we also see the easy potential for violence in the description of his hands, strong enough to crush a face.

…he wore his ill-fitting suit like something that he planned to rip his way out of when he turned into the Hulk.

Dresden2
The first Dresden Files book

This is another reminder that Hendricks is a dangerous guy. Not only does it give us a sense of imminent violence that ratchets up the tension, it tells us how ill at ease he is with the trappings of civilization and how at ease he is with violence.

Not only do these descriptions illuminate these two characters, they also tell us about the protagonist. They have a wry humor that gives us a sense of a protagonist strong and capable enough to hold his own against these dangerous men, but the awareness of their potential for violence tells us he’s smart enough not to underestimate them.

Several turns of phrase, such as “eyes the color of old, faded dollar bills,” add to the book’s distinctive noir flavor, tempered by Harry’s sense of humor and cleverness. They’re consistent with the feel of the book, and help create Harry’s unique voice, which is one of the best things about the series.

What can writers learn from this?

The best character descriptions do more than tell you what color the eyes and hair are, they also fill other roles, such as revealing character and building suspense. Descriptions that do more than one thing are the most effective and the most interesting. Unique descriptors like faded dollar bills can not only give us a visual sense of a person, but also allude to their character. And descriptions that carry a sense of danger or menace can build tension as well as giving us an interesting image.

I highly recommend the Dresden Files books to anyone, but particularly writers who are trying to figure out what ‘voice’ means and how to craft it. You can find the first book here.

Next week, I dissect a character description from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. It’s a good one!


Featured image: “Un dollar us“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

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