How do you describe your women?



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.




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  • I think I could always see John D. MacDonald’s women.

    I’m discovering more and more, though, that you have to be careful, even with favorite authors: THEIR prejudices show. The concept of ‘letting herself go’ was anathema to MacDonald – and usually signaled that the woman in question wouldn’t be alive long. Whereas Travis got out of shape periodically – and worked himself into a righteous sweat getting back into shape – and that was fine.

    I still love the stories, but I notice things like that now that I create characters myself.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      John D. knew how to write. Not only could we see his characters. We understood why they did what they did and, most of the time, we didn’t blame them. We saw it all through their eyes. When characters come alive, so do the stories.

  • Wow. That’s beautiful writing, Caleb. And you’ve touched on an important distinction, I think, because it’s not how we see our characters, it’s how our characters see our characters. Love this post.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Just when I have it figured out, Sue, I learn something new. Now I’m back to the drawing board, working on better descriptions.

  • Darlene Jones

    Your concept of describing characters as other characters see them makes so much sense. Here’s how Flo sees Brit in my latest novel – “When the Sun was Mine”

    Ugly sort of girl, but good cheekbones. Soft and lumpy; not anorexic, like so many of this new generation, but not fit either. Bet she sat around all day with her nose buried in a book. Glasses perched precariously at an angle on her face, the bits of duct tape not quite up to the job of holding them together. Wouldn’t be long before they fell apart completely. And that hair. Thick rich brown, but shaggy and ratty looking. Must have hacked at it herself. Pretty sure it had a natural curl that would look great with the right
    cut and good conditioner.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Darlene, that’s as good as it gets.

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