Describing Characters

I’ve written before that I am still finding my style when it comes to describing characters. (I previously panned Robert Jordan, and then realised I was mistaken and he was correct).

I’ve recently read Mirage by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul. (I’ve never known quite what to expect when ‘with’ is used. Is it truly a collaborative work, or is one author simply nodding through someone to use their name? Of course it could be different in each case). However that’s a tangent; whilst reading it I made special note of how the characters were described. Below are the samples I noted:

He wore prison blues, with a thinly padded jacket to ward off a little of the arctic air. At first, it looked as though he had tightly cropped dark hair, but, in fact, his head was perfectly shaved. It was the intricate design of interlacing tattoos covering his skull that made it look like he had hair. The tattoos continued around his throat and disappeared into the V of his prison shirt. He wasn’t necessarily a big man, but there was a feral intensity to his glacial blue eyes that made him seem dangerous. (page 4)

Having seen season 1 of Prison Break I can envision this.

Both of them were massive, standing at least six foot six, with hands like sledgehammers and biceps and chests that strained the fabric of their shirts. Also like the newly arrived prisoner, their necks were adorned with prison tattoos, though one had a strand of barbed wire inked across his forehead that denoted he’d been sentenced to life with no possibility of parole (page 5).

While the man ate like a near, drank like, well, like a Russian, and exercised every third leap year, he was still in pretty good shape for a man of fifty-five (page 15).

I appreciate both phrases “hands like sledgehammers” and “exercised every third leap year”. The first tells us form and function, the second is clever word-play.

Heavyset, with a florid complexion, a crescent of ginger hair ringing the back half of his skull, and a nose that had been broken enough times that he could have been mistaken for a professional boxer… (page 47).

Methuselah was a teenager compared to the man who trod out of the craft’s broad rear deck. He wore robes and a head scarf and leaned on a cane made of gnarled wood. Wisps of pure white hair coiled from under the scarf while the lower part of his face was covered in a beard befitting a fairy-tale wizard. (page 82).

Patronov was so fair-haired and pale-skinned that he almost appeared albino, and with an upturned nose that looked like the double barrels of a shotgun, he was considered porcine as well. His wet lips were overly large, and he had a cauliflower ear from his days as a boxer in the old Soviet naval academy.He wasn’t particularly tall, but had wide shoulders that sloped up to a bullet head that he kept trimmed in a half-inch buzz of pure white hair. (page 151, 152)

So on the character-description continuum Cussler definitely comes in longer-than-shorter. I also noticed that he also likes to describe clothing. I’m not kidding; the protagonist has more wardrobe changes than a stage performer (and they are all described). He does this I assume to show the character’s fashion sense and wealth.

The story is an action adventure which is fast paced and continual. It’s not my normal genre (although I have read a fair amount of them). On reflection I realise now that I never really thought about any character’s appearance beyond turning the page.

Perhaps in an epic fantasy, which is character-driven, the character’s appearance matters more than a plot-driven adventure where plot overshadows character? Just a thought, but it sounds right to me…

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