Describing Protagonists In Your Work.
Do you describe your protagonist? If so, how much? If not, what do you do?
I ask, because I am currently reading Kem Nunn’s mindblowing Tapping The Source, which I cannot recommend highly enough. A great thriller, and they coined the phrase “surf noir” because of his work. Nunn also wrote some incredible Deadwood episodes. Anyway, I noticed something Nunn did that got me thinking about describing protagonists. He doesn’t. He lets other characters do it for him.
Let me show you how subtle he does this. There’s a knock at the door to Ike Tucker’s fleabag room in Huntington Beach. He’s renting the room while he searches for his missing sister. Two girls are there, happy and stoned:
“They wanted to know if he any papers. The music was louder now with the door open and he could hear other voices farther down the hall. They looked disappointed when he said no. The dark one sort of stuck her head in his room and looked around. She wanted to know if he was a jarhead or something. He said he wasn’t.”
See how he does that? That’s the first description we get of Ike, and it’s on page 19. Ike comes from the desert to the beach to search for his sister. We know up to this point that he’s worked on motorcycles for a living in some dirty desert town in California. We never get an idea of what he looks like until this very moment. Is he a jarhead, the girl asks. You get so much from that one question. He must be clean cut. Have a crewcut. Look sorta square and out of place at the beach, with all that infers. You can draw so much from that one line.
That’s awesome writing, right there. See? We don’t really need to do the usual laundry list of attributes beginning writers tend to do, usually at the opening of the story. We don’t necessarily need the “looking in the mirror” scene to get the protag’s description across to the reader. I’m about 100 pages into this book, and that’s all Nunn does until around page 80 or so where he again naturally talks about how Ike’s hair is growing longer and bleaching from the sun and how he’s burned by being out in the waves as he learns surfing. Never once do we get what Ike’s face looks like, or a description of his body. Nunn has the confidence to leave that to us. He gives us just enough, through inference, to easily allow us to fill in the blanks and give each reader their own vision of Ike, which brings us closer to Ike, makes Ike our own.
Think about this the next time you’re about to write, “Dirk caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His square cut, raven colored hair needed trimming, but his dark brown eyes looked thoughtful, though the fact they slanted downward always bugged him. He flexed his iron cut muscles, and… etc.”
Well, okay, you might not write that, but I think you get the idea.