How do you describe your women?
December 1, 2015
WE ALL HAVE OUR PET PEEVES when it comes to reading a story or a novel.
Personally, I don’t like stick figures.
When I am introduced to major characters, I want to know what they look like or what they think.
I want the author to put some flesh on the bones.
However, there is a real art to describing a character.
As Robert Crais said: “When you feel the need to describe a character, restrain yourself from showing off your mastery of the language and ownership of a good thesaurus. Describe the character as some other character would see her.”
That’s the trick.
Nobody has ever been as good at describing women as Raymond Chandler.
From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like theatre curtains. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.
Dashiell Hammett had his own distinct way of describing a woman:
She advanced slowly, with tentative steps, looking at Spade with cobalt-blue eyes that were both shy and probing. She was tall and plainly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips darkly red. Her white teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made, a blonde woman of a few more years than thirty. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body for all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes.
William Faulkner described a Southern woman this way:
She carried her head high enough – even when we believed she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson.
John D. MacDonald’s description of a woman had a literary quality.
I guess Chook is about twenty-three or –four. Her face is a little older than that. It has that stern look you see in old pictures of the Plains Indians. At her best, it is a forceful and striking face, redolent of strength and dignity. At worst it sometimes would seem to be the face of a Dartmouth boy dressed for the farcical chorus line. But that body, seen more intimately than ever before, was incomparably, mercilessly female, deep and glossy, rounded.
Her grooming was almost too perfect. Every little golden hair was in place. Her eyes were a pale cold gray-blue. She turned those appraising eyes on me. A sharp pink tongue-tip was momentarily visible at the corner of her mouth. There was a little silken whip in that voice, and it made a nice little pop when she got her wrist into it.
So did the prose of James Lee Burke, who wrote:
I believe every…man remembers the girl he thinks he should have married. She reappears to him in his lonely moments, or he sees her in the face of a young girl in the park, buying a snowball under an oak tree by the baseball diamond. But she belongs to back there, to somebody else, and that thought sometimes rends your heart in a way that you never share with anyone else.
I could see those women.
They made an impression.
The author never had to describe them again.
I remembered, and I could visualize every scene that surrounded them.
In Night Side of Dark, I described my heroine this way when she first entered the story:
A beautiful girl wore a scar carved by a knife that had slashed from beneath her left ear down to her throat. Blood had dried on her face. Her eyes were crystal clear and defiant. The ear was missing. Her cotton jacket was in rags, her skirt smeared with streaks of red. Lincoln assumed it was the blood. The flesh on her arms was pimpled with goose bumps, and she shivered as the rains soaked her blonde hair, leaving it in curls and plastered against the back of her neck.
That’s not the way I saw her.
I didn’t see her at all.
But that’s the way Ambrose Lincoln saw her.
And his description was the only one that mattered.
He would spend the next four hundred pages with her.