The Blog of Author Robert K. Lewis

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.


10 responses

  1. The mirror!! Lol. Luckily, I’ve never gone down that road. I do let the other characters describe each other, however I could only wish to be so subtle. Definitely something to work towards. Thanks for a great post.

    01/06/2010 at 10:29 pm

  2. I must admit to using “the mirror” once or twice, lol. I revised it out, thank God. I can only wish, like you, to one day be as subtle as Mr. Nunn. Thanks for stopping by!

    01/06/2010 at 11:31 pm

  3. My writing style is pretty sparse in the description category. I’ve got a few pieces here and there, but that’s it. I think πŸ™‚

    I do like his writing though – that one line gave me an instant picture. Maybe one day… πŸ™‚

    01/07/2010 at 12:35 am

    • It’s all process, Jemi. Man… I’m years away from what I read in that book. Though… lol, after I wrote this post, I found a “protag looking in the mirror” scene. Made my laugh.

      01/08/2010 at 7:59 am

  4. Nice thought-provoking post.

    I am a sparse writer when it comes to description. In part because illustrations will cover most of it for my younger readers.

    For my older ones I try to throw in the little bits I think are necessary through action. “I tried to push him out of the way, but he was big. Chub over muscle big.”

    My only concession to this has been a middle grade novel where I opened with the description from the MC’s point of view. However, this was done because it was in direct contrast to his perception of himself.

    “Think about the stupidest kid you know. That’s right. Now picture him with short blonde hair and grayish eyes. That’s me. Kyle Sanlusky…” He goes on with his averageness in physical appearance and likes, then finishes with “…I’m also the stupidest kid in the world.”

    It’s way out of character for me, but I think it works for this book.

    I would rather have my readers make the book theirs by allowing them to picture the characters and setting through their experiences–just like your jarhead example.

    01/07/2010 at 3:22 pm

  5. I think what you cite there works, Cat. That’s how kids view themselves, and it feels organic to the story. That’s nice, what you got there. πŸ™‚

    01/08/2010 at 7:58 am

  6. purelycarrie

    Darn, What was I brought here by something higher? I just had a mirror scene. Back to the drawing board …

    01/08/2010 at 5:30 pm

    • lol, I hear ya, purelycarrie. And you know what? I finished Tapping The Source, and I’m afraid I have to say that Numm does actually include a “mirror scene” at one point, later in the story! Lol, I nearly plotzed. However, I have to say that it was handled very organically, and did NOT feel like a “cheap out”. He used it as a way to show the change the protag has gone through physically, and it was a change that was VERY extreme, so I feel it works in that context.

      01/08/2010 at 10:50 pm

  7. jmartinlibrarian

    Great example. I hate it when a writer gives a lot of purple prose with physical description. Yuck. Leave something to my imagination. One or two details are all I need.

    Good stuff! Thanks.

    01/13/2010 at 6:53 pm

    • Thanks! Glad to see you here again. πŸ™‚

      01/14/2010 at 6:07 pm

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