The Journal: Character Descriptions

In today’s Journal

* Wow. Lately
* I’d be remiss
* Topic: Character Descriptions
* Yesterday, and Memorial Day
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Wow. Lately “Of Interest” seems a feast or famine prospect. Today it’s famine.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass along the info on “David Farland’s Advanced Fantasy and SF Writing Workshop” (at

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t remind you of my mentorships and recommend a comparison. But that’s up to you.

Topic: Character Descriptions

It’s difficult to point to a “good” book on characterization. Not because they aren’t out there, but because there are so many out there. Pretty much any advice you read or hear regarding how to describe characters will be good advice.

Well, unless the instructor brings up that old false saw about readers wanting to imagine the characters for themselves. They don’t. Just trust me on that.

Anyway, the idea is to take on board any advice on characterization that feels right to you, absorb it, and let it seep out of your subconscious as you write.

That being said, there are no easy answers for how to write character descriptions except to include them (vs. omitting them). Readers can only see what you show them. That said, for me, character (and setting) descriptions come in phases.

In Phase 1, when your reader or another character first meets the character, they (like humans) will see (hear, smell, etc.) a sterotype. We’re hard-wired that way. Seeing and reacting to people as stereotypes isn’t your fault and it doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s a wholly instinctive protective response housed in your brain.

So when you first introduce a character, whether or not you consciously want to, you’ll introduce a stereotype to put an initial picture in the reader’s mind. (Often the expectation of a particular sterotype is already cemented in place by genre.)

This is usually either a brief sentence (or two or three) of straight narrative or another character’s opinion as s/he sees/senses the character you’re describing. Neither way is “right” or “wrong,” and I often use both throughout my stories, usually working in concert.

In Phase 2, which usually comes quickly (maybe even the same sentence or the next sentence) you’ll add something unusual that makes the character unique and more real: a scar, the form of a moustache, the vibrant color of the hair, a bit of spittle on the bottom lip, an odor, etc.

All of this happens very quickly when the character first comes on stage, and it’s usually mixed with action. (Note: The first action below is “protruded.” You can find the others.)

* * *

A thick mop of dirty brown hair protruded from beneath Ralph Lawson’s dusty off-white hat as he crossed the dusty main street of Dalton, Texas. In his left hand was a beat-up double-barrel 10-gauge shotgun with a worn wooden stock.

He barely noticed as a wagon laden with sacks of wheat passed in front of him. He walked through the dust cloud that followed the wagon down the street.

He didn’t notice the surrey with a laughing couple that passed behind him as he pushed past a rusty sorrel mare and a palomino stallion tied to the hitching rail. The palomino nervously fidgeted to one side.

Beneath a scowl, he clomped heavily up onto the boardwalk. The slight jarring caused pain to shoot through the left side of his jaw.

The angry red wound started below his ear. That’s where they’d placed the tip of the running iron. It ended near his chin. The wound was almost healed but still tender. He could still smell the flesh sizzling and taste his helplessness as the other two men, laughing, held him down. The shame might never heal.

That same laughter filtered out through the batwing doors on the back of the sounds from the piano and the quiet buzz of conversation.

He pushed through, followed the laughter to a table just inisde on the right, and raised the shotgun.

Both men looked up. He took it in, wanting to remember that final image.

The man on the left, his hat dangling over his back from a chin strap. His glass at his lips in his left hand, liquid pouring through a grin. Then his right palm coming up, warding off his fear. “Now Jim, we was drunk. We didn’t mean to—”

The man on the right, reaching for his glass, but stopping, looking up. A sneer crossing his face. “Well, I’ll be. If it ain’t—”

The plaintive sound of the cocking of two hammers. The squeeze on one trigger, then the next. Then the explosions.

The first man’s hand slapping back, becoming part of his face before the face disappeared.

The second man scrambling up from his chair, reaching with his right hand for his revolver. The second blast taking him full in the chest.

Two chairs overturned, out of sight behind the table, both still occupied but with only dead meat.

The bar fell silent. Ralph Lawson lowered the shotgun, looked, nodded and walked out.

* * *

Phase 3 (in my experience) is additional specific description as noticed by another character. It’s usually a nuance, or a series of them. Add this later, when the character makes another appearance or appears in a different way or from the perspective of a different character or while the character is taking another action.

Following the scene above, maybe there will be an interaction with a local lawman. Or maybe he was in the saloon, frozen by the moment, but follows “Jim” out. Et cetera.

Maybe the character’s stepping out of a car or down from a stagecoach. Maybe he’s turning for a final look at a devastated city on a planet that’s destroying itself before he steps up on the ramp of the starship that will take him off the surface. Or maybe he’s exiting a swimming pool to find a man with a gun crouched and waiting, a smirk on his face. Or maybe he’s trying frantically to escape the pirhanas someone slipped into the pool.

Is this helpful at all? I hope so. Imagine this sort of thing applied to your own writing.

Yesterday I finished cycling through the text I kept from the old version of Book 3. I have visitors over the next few days. I’ll write or not as I am able.

I hope you and yours have an enjoyable and thoughtful Memorial Day weekend.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “The Unintentional Writer” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1080 words

Writing of Wes Crowley, Texas Ranger (novel)
Words brought forward………………………………………… 31,122

Day 1…… 0773 words. Total words to date…… 31895
Day 2…… 2162 words. Total words to date…… 34057

Total fiction words for May……… 74831
Total fiction words for the year………… 446110
Total nonfiction words for May… 29720
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 105580
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 551690

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 9
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 62
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

2 thoughts on “The Journal: Character Descriptions”

  1. I appreciate this Harvey. You have a way of explaining these often confusing ideas across in a simple and immediately practical way.

    Did “Ralph Lawson” mutate into “Jim Parsons” somewhere along his mosey to the saloon? 😉

    (I did the same thing in a story opener just last week.)


    • Thanks, Matt. I guess ol’ Ralph did transmigrate somewhere along there. Must be magical batwings. 🙂 But then, that’s why I have first readers. They’re worth their weight in gold. (It should really be Ralph Lawson. “Ralph” seems more like a guy who might own such a shotgun and might take the law (Law-son) into his own hands.) But feel free to use whichever name you like better. I’ve made the correction, and also corrected “lowerered” to “lowered.”

      Funny, as I finished writing that, I almost took off on another novel with it. There has to be backstory, right? And more story ahead. I also found myself wondering whether the three men knew each other (maybe soldiered together in the Civil War, etc.)

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