Writers in the Storm

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April 18, 2018

Not Your Mama’s Character Descriptions

Margie Lawson


Does your real or imaginary writing checklist include: Make Character Descriptions Fresh, Unpredictable, Multi-Powerful?

If not, it could.

Character descriptions can add power on multiple levels. You can treat the reader to something fresh, something they haven’t read before. You can slip in details that deepen characterization too.

Character descriptions provide an opportunity to:

  • write fresh
  • boost cadence
  • add a humor hit
  • strengthen emotion
  • slip in backstory or other story dynamics
  • share physical and psychological descriptions
  • deepen characterization for one or more characters, including relationships

The more important a character, the more attention and power they deserve in the description.

Attention: Consider the number of lines.

Power: Be strategic regarding style and structure.

The Promise Between Us, Barbara Claypole White

  1. "They made a good team in the classroom, despite their different styles—and physiques. Thanks to all the lifting and hauling of steel, Ben was a Viking built for battle; Trent was a mix of scrappy street fighter and Dudley Moore in Santa Claus: The Movie."

 Deep Edit Analysis:

      Linked Ben’s description to his job.

      Rhetorical Devices:

  1. Alliteration: scrappy, street, Santa
  2. Allusion: character in movie
  3. "Ben raked his hands through his dirty-blonde hair. He kept trying to sculpt it up, but the front continued to flop forward into a cowlick that made him look younger than thirty-five."

Deep Edit Analysis:

 Fresh Description

Age Slip-In – Smart!

Some authors like to share several physical traits. Others may share a physical trait or two, leaving most of the description for the reader to fill in. This plan works well in these examples from Dana Summers.

 Drawn & Buried, Dana J. Summers, Immersion Grad

  1. "Luke Skywalker had Darth Vader. The Hatfields had the McCoys. Me? I had Brawley, the editor with the sense of humor of an IRS auditor. He had the look of a man who sent his suits out once a week to be rumpled."

Deep Edit Analysis:

            Humor Hits!

          Shares POV character’s attitude about Brawley in an unpredictable way.

  1. "Between breaths, Stanfield worked his gum. His eyelids hung like broken window shades."

Deep Edit Analysis:

            Fresh writing.

            Implies Stanfield is overweight.

            Humor Hits.

            Fabulous imagery.

 Say Goodbye for Now, Catherine Ryan Hyde, NYT Bestseller

You may know Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of Pay It Forward. If you didn’t, now you do. 

 Fifth Paragraph of Chapter One:

  1. "Below her on the front porch stood two young men, dressed in matching uniforms of white T-shirts and jeans. Even their flattop haircuts looked identical. The only obvious difference, at least at this distance and in the dark: one was a good six inches taller than, and had forty pounds on, his companion. That and the fact that the little man’s T-shirt was soaked through with a jagged map of bright blood."

Deep Edit Analysis:

The POV character is a physician, seems right she’d note height and weight.

Backloaded with blood.

  1. "He was a compact man, not very big. But strong looking. In many ways, he was a dead ringer for his son. Small stature. Dark skinned. Hair cropped close. Glasses.

         Taking him in with her eyes made her feel better. There was something…for a  second she couldn’t quite find the word. Civilized. There was something civil about him. Compared to most of the men she had met."

Deep Edit Analysis of the Two-Paragraph Description:

            Varied sentence structure, including frags.

            Shared a quality she respected.

            Implied she didn’t respect most men.

The Forgotten Ones, Steena Holmes, Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller           

  1. "My grandfather is an old man. He’s thin, frail-looking, and with only a little bit of hair on his head. His face creases with wrinkles when he smiles, and the skin on his hands—even on his arms—is translucent."

Deep Edit Analysis:

            Clear description. I like that she didn’t share the color of that little bit of hair.

           The reader knows he’s dying. Translucent skin, backloaded.

  1. "His gray-blue eyes stare at me with a steadiness, measuring me, judging me while I stand there.

Do I pass?

What does he think when he looks at me? Does he see a thin and mangy girl trying to find her way in the world, or a confident woman willing to take the world by storm—what I hope to portray?"

Deep Edit Analysis of the Three-Paragraph Description:

            First Paragraph: Lots of power words, triggers her emotional reaction.

          Second Paragraph: Strong stand-alone.

          Third Paragraph: Slips in two physical descriptors for the POV character, and hints at her struggle with her self-concept. Smart!

Long Shot, Kennedy Ryan, Immersion Grad

"She must be a good seven inches over five feet. A guy my height gets used to towering over everyone else, but I like a woman with a little height. Her hair, dark and dense as midnight, is an adventure, roaming wild and untamed around her face in every direction, drifting past her shoulders. She looks pissed, her wide, full mouth tight, and the sleek line of her jaw bunched."

Deep Edit Analysis:

            Shares her height and hints at his.

           Alliteration: dark, dense, drifting

          Shares her emotional set, angry, but does it with descriptors that are suggestive—wide, full mouth, sleek like of jaw. 

My Hope Next Door, Tammy L. Gray, Immersion Grad, RITA Winner

"He hadn’t changed much. His hair was still in need of a good cut, and his mouth still wore that infuriating smirk that attempted to be both condescending and charming. But he’d aged. Lines cut around his eyes, and his skin had a weathered look from working outside in the hot Georgia sun.

She eyed the distance between his massive body and the edge of the narrow aisle he blocked.

As if he could read her mind, he broadened his stance and cut off the little space that remained. 'A while? It’s been years, Katie. I almost didn’t recognize you.'

Of course he didn’t. She’d stopped dyeing her hair jet black and had cut at least five inches off the length. She also wasn’t wearing frayed booty shorts and a ticked-off expression. Well, she hadn’t been scowling, not until Cooper cornered her.

He reached out to touch her natural, more traditional locks of hair, and she flinched. Physically, he’d never hurt her, but the man knew how to throw an emotional right hook that could knock a person down for days."

Deep Edit Analysis of Five-Paragraph Description:

            First Paragraph: Shared some negatively-connoted descriptors

          Shared two factoids too. We’re in Georgia, and he works outside.

          Second Paragraph: Shared another physical descriptor, and intimidation.

          Third Paragraph: More intimidation, and sets up her description.

          Fourth Paragraph: Points to Tammy Gray for slipping in description for the POV character and contrasting with how she had been years before.

          Fifth Paragraph: Deepens relationship and strengthens emotion.

Hints at their history and added emotion in fresh way. 

The Darkest Lie, Pintip Dunn, Immersion Grad, RITA Winner, NYT Bestseller

  1. "I rip my eyes away, and my gaze collides with a guy I’ve never seen before.

Which is saying a lot, since Lakewood, Kansas, only has a population of 10,000. He’s tall, totally built, and wears a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.

I can’t figure out whether he’s a hottie or a nerd. Maybe both. On the one hand, he has the kind of pecs Mackenzie would be all over like buzzards on a carcass. On the other, his jeans are an inch too short, the color unfashionably faded from too many washings."

Deep Edit Analysis of Two-Paragraph Description:

                  First Paragraph: Shares factoids and physical descriptors.

                Uses teen-speak. It’s a YA.

                  Second Paragraph: Fun and unpredictable.

                Simile with negative connotations (Mackenzie)

  1. "Mackenzie’s waiting by my locker after school. She sticks out her designer-jeans-clad butt, taking up half the hallway, so that the foot traffic has to diverge around her.

As I approach, her eyes flicker over my gray hoodie and black canvas high-tops, clothes designed to make me disappear. I think about walking past her and out the double-glass doors, but I need to face her sometime. And if I look like the coward I really am? She’ll find some way to use it against me."

Deep Edit Analysis of Two-Paragraph Description: 

                 First Paragraph:  Clear visual, negative connotations, shares attitude

               Second Paragraph:  Shares POV character’s clothing and why she chooses to wear those clothes.

               Deepens characterization for POV character.

               Shares powerful internalizations that speak to their antagonistic relationship. 

Now you have a few ideas regarding how to make your character descriptions carry more interest and power. You could have lots more ideas after July.

I’m developing a course on writing character descriptions, which will be available in July. It includes my Top Twelve Techniques for Writing Multi-Level Character Descriptions. And you can count on tons of teaching points, amazing examples, and deep edit analyses too.

Kudos to all the authors I referenced in this blog. Love their writing! 

And -- THANK YOU to the WITS gals for hosting me. Can’t wait to see you at RWA National! 

THANK YOU ALL for dropping by the blog.

Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!’ 

Post something -- and you have two chances to be a winner.

You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy.

Lawson Writer's Academy – May Courses

  1. Submissions That Sell and More!
  2. Giving Your Chapters a Pulse
  3. 30 Days to a Stronger Novel
  4. Crazy-Easy, Awesome Author Websites!
  5. Battling the Basics
  6. Creative Writing Weapons – New Course!

 Post a comment. Let me know you’re here. I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS Thursday night, at 9PM Mountain Time, and post them in the comments section.

Like this blog? Give it a social media boost. Thank you.

Margie Lawson —editor and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners.

She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2018, in Phoenix, Denver, San Jose area, Dallas, Yosemite, Los Angeles (2), Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Coolangatta, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses through Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com.

115 comments on “Not Your Mama’s Character Descriptions”

  1. As always, Margie, you remind me of what I know, and in my laziness, haven't been doing. These great examples are the kick in the pants I needed!

    Thank you.

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Laura --

      I'm happy to give you a boost in the patoot!

      Did you notice I used ASSONANCE? Rhyming vowel sounds -- boost and patoot.

      Can't wait to read THE LAST TRUE COWBOY! Love that cover.

  2. This was a great article to read before I start my revisions. Great examples of fresh writing. Rather than my usual morning procrastinating, I feel inspired to tackle them. With a cup of coffee, of course! Thanks. 🙂

  3. Love these deep edit analyses! Pulling apart bits of other people’s writing is one of my favorite ways to work on my own writing. I don’t do fiction (much), but I’m always looking at how I can slip in brief, thumbnail sketches of minor characters in the memoirs I write for people. This has given me some great ideas. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hello Amy --

      Ah, memoirs! My deep editing techniques work for writing memoirs too. You may want to check out my lecture packets and online courses.

      Thanks for posting!

      1. Jenny, I'm glad you're enjoying it! It's funny, since I spend all my time writing up other people's memories (in their voice), I've developed a bit of a mental block at thought of doing my own. Not sure if it's a phobia or just laryngitis of my own memoir voice.

  4. Hi Margie. Every post. Every paragraph. Every analysis you so generously give is like a mini course. It’s like - I can do this because it makes perfect sense. Thank you. X Jay.

    1. Hugs to Immersion-Grad-To-Be Jay!

      You used ANAPHORA. Kudos to you!

      I can't wait to work in an Immersion class with you. See you Down Under in October.

      Gold Coast here I come, again!

        1. Jay -- I just found your email and replied. Thanks for letting me know about it!

  5. I attended one of your workshops many years ago at Asilomar in California, went back to my WIP and changed the opening pages. I sold the book soon after. So thank you. After ten books my characters still need work. Your examples were very helpful.

    1. Hello Pamela Gibson --

      I love Sacramento Valley Rose RWA. And their retreat at Asilomar was stellar. I loved presenting that weekend. Soooo fun!

      CONGRATULATIONS on your sales! Kudos to you!

      BTW, I've developed more deep editing techniques since that retreat in 2013. Powerful, make-your-writing-stronger techniques. Now you know. 🙂

  6. Another great post! Love this description you gave: "Her hair, dark and dense as midnight, is an adventure, roaming wild and untamed around her face in every direction, drifting past her shoulders."

    1. Hello Janet!

      Love that description!

      Kennedy Ryan's LONG SHOT is an amazing read. She's a Top 100 Amazon Bestseller, and an Immersion grad. 🙂

  7. This is a really great post. I'm taking one of your workshops online right now. One of your instructors pointed this blog out to me, and I've been reading it ever since.

    1. Hello Maggie!

      Thank you. Enjoy your Lawson Writer's Academy course.

      You're smart to be a WITS fan!

  8. Character descriptions can be so difficult, but I love when how you write them fresh, they tell so much about the person we're looking at AND the character describing them. I have a character in one novels that gets described from two different POVs, and it was fun to figure out how each of those girls saw this guy—he's the same physically, but the girls bring all their stuff to the description. Thanks for these GREAT examples, Margie! And for breaking it all down. Love having you here! (And I will miss you in Denver! ♥)

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Julie!

      I bet those character descriptions are awesome! Please send them to me!

      I'll miss you in Denver, but I'd love to see you before or after the Cruising Writers cruise in December. I need my Julie-fix for 2018!

      1. Oh, I'm determined to see you in December! Even if I had to plant myself right in front of the ship to intercept you. Thanks, Margie!

        (And thinking today about last year's April and our wonderful walk through the French vineyards! Loved that day.)

  9. Great post as always, Margie! I need to go back through my WIP and freshen those character descriptions.

    1. Hello Carrie --

      Thank you!

      Glad you'll check your character descriptions. I hope you check body language and dialogue cues and visceral responses -- and all the other scene elements too!

      No missed opportunities to add interest and depth and power!

    1. Hello Amy!

      Sounds like you had some learning lightbulb moments!

      If you're not familiar with my online courses and lecture packets. Please check them out on my website. I bet they'll make you happy.

    1. Hello Michelle --

      You're an Immersion-wannabe!

      In case you're interested in an Immersion this year, I just added a new class, June 26 - 30. It's at my house -- at the top of a mountain west of Denver.

      The next class that has some open spots is Sept. 9 - 13. That one's at my house too.

      I just opened an Immersion class in Sydney, Australia in November. The other Immersion classes in Australia are full.

      I'm guessing you're interested in an Immersion in the U.S. But -- Australia is a sterling silver bucket list item. 🙂

      1. Thanks for the information, Margie! Can't travel much this year as I just had a baby a month and a half ago. Unless if you don't mind me bringing her there! Lol. She might be disruptive and steal the show though.

        1. Michelle --

          Congratulations! I love babies! But my four month old puppy is the perfect distraction for Immersioners. Titan gets lots of snuggles in class.

    1. Hello Vanessa F!

      Always great to cyber-see you. And I'm soooo glad I get to see you in-person and work with you again at the West Texas Writer's Academy in June!

    1. Hellooooooo Dani!

      Sounds like you are new to my deep editing techniques. Welcome to my teaching-writing world.

      Please check out my website and all the online courses and lecture packets. If you have questions, feel free to contact me.

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Fae --

      Have fun fixing. Can't wait to work with you in your third (?) Immersion in July.

      You're a cruise grad and a West Texas Writers Academy grad too.

      Honing deep editing skills is a smart addiction. 🙂

  10. I love love fresh character descriptions! Thanks for including such great examples. I'm in full revision mode on one of my WIP's so this is very timely.

    1. Hello DLW --

      Thank you!

      Keep in mind, my online courses and lecture packets are loaded with dozens more deep editing techniques.

      Just had to share. 🙂

  11. Margie, thank you for using a bit of LONG SHOT! I learned so much reading your other examples. Makes me realize that I can do better, for sure! I guess I need another Immersion. Thank you for including me. Always an honor.

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Kennedy Ryan!

      I loved LONG SHOT! Such a powerful story. And -- you hit Amazon Top 40!

      Kudos to you on your success!

      I'd love to work with you in another Immersion class. I've developed so many NEW DEEP EDITING TECHNIQUES since your Immersion class eons ago.

      You don't know about my 16 Invisible Tattoos that share Margie Rules of Writing.

      Those 16 Margie Rules are just shared with Immersioners. I save some awesome teaching points for Immersioners.

      Come and get 'em!

      I hope I get to work with you again soon!

  12. Oh, my goodness.Such stellar examples. Examples like these followed by the deep edit analysis are gold to me. I keep a notebook of examples like this. Guess where these are going? *grin*

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Lynette!

      You're smart to keep a notebook of stellar examples! Plus -- you have HUNDREDS OF PAGES of awesome examples from my Big Three Courses, the prerequisites for your Immersion class.

      Hope we get to reconnect this year, or next!

    1. Hello Mark --

      Great! Have fun adding going fresh and deep with your character descriptions.

    1. Hey Paulette --

      Always fun to see you here!

      Gee, we should meet sometime. 🙂

  13. So honored to be mentioned--especially in such great company. With hindsight, I can recall every early draft of those lines…and still I want to rewrite them.

    1. Hello Almost-Immersion-Grad Barbara!

      Those lines are awesome!

      Loved the cowlick - and the age slip-in. Smart, smart, smart!

      Can't wait to work with you in Immersion in July!

  14. Great examples and always a reminder to up my game in my edits. So looking forward to working with you again in Oct. in Melb. Margie.

    1. Hugs to Immersion grad Cassandra!

      We'll have such fun digging even deeper into deep editing in your second Immersion class.

      You'll love the Immersion hostess, Ella Carey, The Paris Time Capsule. We'll have an amazing Immersion in Melbourne!

  15. I love these examples, Margie. I feel like I learn something new with each one. Looking forward to taking one of your workshops some day.

    1. Hello Kim --

      Ah -- another Immersion wannabe!

      If you haven't taken my Big Three courses, or the lecture packets for those courses, dive in. They're the prerequisites for Immersion Master Classes.

      Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues will be taught in June.


    1. Hellooo Andrea!

      Did you know Tammy L Gray is one of your 300+ Immersion cousins?

      Hope you two get to meet sometime. But that 6700+ miles apart thing may interfere.

      Can't wait to see you in October!

    1. Hello Erica --


      Lawson Writer's Academy has lots more awesome courses. 😉

  16. Hi Margie! I always love reading these lessons and posts! It takes me back to the day course last year in Cleveland and fuels the writing fires even more! I can’t wait to experience an immersion first hand!

    1. Hello Todd --

      Thank you! The Cleveland group was awesome!

      I had such fun with Monica Corwin. Loved working with her in her second Immersion.

      Can't wait to work with you in your first Immersion class!

  17. Fabulous examples! I've been practicing since your workshop last Saturday, and these are wonderful to give me ideas. Thanks!

    1. Hello Dallenco --

      The ACFW Colorado Springs writers were amazing. So committed to learning deep editing. I loved working with you all!

  18. After taking your amazing class at our WFWA retreat a couple of years ago, I was horrified last week to get the edits back for my second book and have the editor point out the cliches I used (something you taught us NOT to do!) and my generic descriptions of characters.

    Thank goodness I have more rounds of edits coming. This valuable blog will come in handy. It is much appreciated!

    1. Hellooo Jill --

      Epic Aack!

      Umm... I bet you'll consider each cliche and nix it or twist it or see what it's covering up.

      Sometimes a cliche is just sitting there waiting to be shot. 🙂

      Sometimes a cliche is begging to be tickled and twisted.

      Sometimes a cliche covers up a bigger truth.

      Just my ideas about dealing with cliches on the page. Hope those three points are helpful.

  19. Margie, I miss you!! Why do I have to wait until July to hug you? *Aaaaggghhhhh* Will you be having a hug and chug? Do I get to pick you up for the OC Immersion?

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Jenny!

      YES! I'm having a Meet and Greet, Hug and Chug at RWA National. Still figuring out when and where. I'll let EVERYONE know the details.

      You and Chris can figure out which one of you is picking me up for the Orange County Immersion class. Can't wait!

    1. Hello Chris --

      Thank you!

      I'll get to see your character descriptions, and more, in Immersion at your house in September!

    1. Hellooo Immersion Grad Kathleen!


      How about an Advanced Immersion Sept. 9 - 13? Let me know soon if those dates work for you. Hope so!

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Regina Morris!

      Thank you, thank you, thank you.

      I'm looking forward to working with you again, sometime!

  20. I love how all these descriptions do double or triple duty in painting these characters as real people. I'm reading Tammy Gray's My Hope Next Door right now and have been admiring the characterization all the way through--now I know why! 🙂

    1. Hello Valerie --

      Yes! Immersion grads like Tammy Gray know how to deep edit to add power on multiple levels. I loved MY HOPE NEXT DOOR too. Fabulous story with strong writing.

    1. Hello Immersion Grad Wendy --

      I'm wearing my beautiful first -Immersion-sisters-in-Australia pendant now - thanks to you.

      I recently opened an Immersion in Sydney, in November. Let me know if it works for you!

  21. Thanks for the reminders, Margie! Today I'm doing a last pass on one of the books we worked on at immersion and sending it back to my editor for round two, so I'll be keeping on eye on fresh character descriptions! ?

    1. Hello Don Massenzio -

      Thanks for posting my blog on your blog.

      I enjoyed touring your website. You listed several favorite authors, and had Harlan Coben first. His writing is fun and powerful. Many of his paragraphs are locked in my brain, word-for-word.

      And - you shared that To Kill A Mockingbird was your favorite book.

      My granddaughter is named Scout. 🙂

    1. Hugs to 2-time Immersion Grad Krytal Shannon!

      Your writing is deep editing strong! Can't wait to read your fresh character descriptions. I know I'll be WOWED!

    1. Hello dholcomb

      Yes! Excellent point.

      Everything we write needs to flow. Sound natural. We don't want it to come across like the writer is trying too hard to impress the reader.

    1. Hugs to Immersion Grad Christy Carlyle!

      Thank you, thank you! Can't wait to work with you in Immersion Master Class again, and dig into your awesome stories and characters and writing!

  22. Love the post — lots of great reminders and examples. I need to look at my current WIP to see where I can strengthen my character descriptions. Thanks for writing.

  23. Marige, Your analysis of these wow-worthy lines are great reminders of what goes into such fantastic writing. Once again, I'm inspired to dig deeper and make my writing better.

  24. Thank you for all the great examples. Character description can be so blah. These fresh ideas will really give them - character (LOL)

  25. For some reason when I posted my example it didn't take. Here it is again. He stopped short causing his heart to ricochet off his ribcage. She wore a red dress with white fur around the collar, hem and cuffs. It stopped mid-thigh showcasing her long, lean legs. The neckline was cut low barely covering her ample assets. A red hat trimmed with white fur adorned her head but it was the white, knee-high stiletto boots she wore that had a pool of drool forming in his mouth. She looked liked one of Santa's sexy elves. An elf he wanted to f*ck on the shelf. The desk. The table. The bear skin rug.

  26. Love your work, Margie! Really great article with fab examples. And I love how you've dissected each one. It makes it so much easier to then apply the strategies to my own writing.

  27. Margie Lawson's examples are always helpful. I loved the choices for her examples. I am a big fan of Barbara Claypole White. I attended a Margie Lawson presentation and still use materials from it. I will go back to these examples as I peruse and edit my characters.

  28. Hi Margie! I'm adding this post to my growing Margie Lawson binder. Thanks for the inspiration!

  29. The examples are great and I'm so excited about the new class. I'm just finishing up the 3rd of your courses on LWA, and I'm worried I'll go into withdrawal without them!

  30. Hi Margie! So many great examples 🙂

    I'll be watching out for your new characterisation class. I need some motivation to get back into my edits (and solve the problem of my too-perfect hero). This looks like a perfect fit.

  31. Thank you so much for all the examples and discussion points! I've only barely started your Empowering Characters' Emotions lecture packet, and have already found it a treasure chest. So grateful.

  32. Wonderful article, loved the creative way the writers you selected described their characters. Translucent skin. Bright blood on a white t-shirt.

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