Describing Character: Making a First Impression Count

I have been thinking about first impressions. In a romance, there is a moment when two characters meet and form impressions of one another. The impressions they form may jive with those the writer has planted in the reader’s mind, or they may be false and contrast deliciously with what the reader knows to be the truth. In the latter case, the story is shaped by the change from that initial impression to one more pleasing.

I know that long descriptions full of unnecessary detail can bore the reader. If I get to the description some time after the character first appears, I run the risk of describing the character in a way which conflicts with the reader’s already formed impression, thus jarring the reader out of the story. The best descriptions are short, offering one or two key details. They often rely similes that allow the reader to fill in the details on his or her own.

First impressions are formed in a particular time and place. A chunk of description dropped into the scene without connection to the setting or circumstances of the characters is a stumbling block. I’ve been known leave such blocks in early drafts to be hammered out in the editing. I ran across the following paragraph from the scene in The Door Behind Us where Frank really sees Jersey for the first time.

It was like waking from a daydream. Frank was aware of his surroundings, but unable at first, to connect anything. He was mucking out the barn. He smelled manure and watched hay dust drift down in the shaft of sunlight from the open shutters in the hayloft. The light reached a young man on a three-legged stool. He recognized the source of the voice that had haunted his dreams for weeks. The man—boy really—was slight. Narrow shoulders cut his shirt like a hanger. He balanced on a three-legged stool on uneven thighs, one well-defined and the other bone thin. He had green eyes that looked almost gray until the sun hit them, and curly dark hair longer than army regulation with flecks of hay in it. A nose like a blade led to a wide mouth, now wavering uncertainly between a smile and a nervous grimace. He realized that this man had been with him, had been talking to him for days. The words were gone, but they hung in the air with the dust.

While not wholly without merit, the description is long and dry. It feels disconnected from the rest of the scene. Here’s the edited version.

Frank woke from a daydream. He was mucking out the barn. He smelled manure and watched hay dust drift in the shaft of sunlight from the open shutters in the hayloft. The light reached a young man perched on a three-legged stool just inside the barn door, and he recognized the source of the voice which had haunted his dreams for weeks. It was as if he were seeing him for the first time. The man—boy really—balanced on uneven thighs, one muscled, the other bone thin and ending in a stump. Catching Frank’s stare, he tilted his head, his wide mouth wavering uncertainly between a smile and a grimace. Frank thought the boy’s eyes were gray until he moved and the sun transformed them to sea green. He laughed at the trick, and the boy’s smile steadied and widened. The boy had been with him, had been talking to him for days. The words were gone, but they hung in the air with the dust.

The new description is twelve words shorter and contains fewer details, but contains action. Frank and Jersey interact in a way that adds to the scene. I can move on to the next impression.

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One response to “Describing Character: Making a First Impression Count

  1. Nice piece, John. The usual minor editing mishaps (couple of dropped prepositions). Re. first par. meaning a bit confusing. First impressions are usually first encounters between prospective lovers (partners? etc.). Here you then segue to reader’s impressions, which are harder to measure. I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Russo and just finished Jonathan Franzen’s second book, both loaded with descriptive material of the kind you are cutting back on in your example. Depending on how it all flows, I don’t think it’s necessarily required to cut it back if it’s good, and enhances the reading experience and reader’s understanding of the locale and setting. I do agree that too much (or sometimes any at all) in the wrong time or place is at best distracting. One of my favorite all time writers is George R. R. Martin–hugely successful, and it all comes from extremely vivid description of every scene, action, setting, character, and thought. His books are all long, but immensely readable. Check it out!

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