Using Description to Advance Plot and Deepen Character

I’ve often heard from beta readers that they need a physical description of a character to picture him or her. I don’t if I have something attitudinal in their speech or gestures – I fill in the rest. Regardless some people need it and those who don’t shouldn’t be disturbed when they have a physical description.

But how boring is it to recite descriptors that would be found on a driver’s license? For instance, “He walked into the room. Six foot tall. 185 lbs. Brown hair, blue eyes.”

If we’re going to use the ink, isn’t it better to advance plot and/or deepen character with these brush strokes. I ran across this example from Colin Dexter’s The Daughter of Cain the other day that took my breath away. (By the way, the audiobooks are a treasure. Dexter’s writing is superlative and the narration by Frederick Davidson is a master class. Kevin Whatley also narrates a number of them.)

Try to guess who the point of view character is and who he’s describing:

               “The bone structure of her face looked gaunt below the pallid cheeks; her eyes…might once have sparkled like those of glaucopis Athene, but now were dull – a sludgy shade of green, like the waters of the Oxford canal; her nose – tip-tilted in slightly concave fashion, like the contour of a nursery ski-slop – was disfigured (as he saw things) by two cheap-looking silver rings one drilled through either nostril; her lips, marginally on the thin side of the Aristotelian mean, were ever thickly daubed with a shade of bright orange – a shade that would have been permanently banned from her mouth by any mildly competent beautician…”

               I know I had a pretty strong idea of who he was to her, who she was to him, his background, her background, and his opinion of her by the end of the passage.

               Do you?


Keenan Powell


Keenan Powell is the Agatha, Lefty, and Silver Falchion nominated author of the Maeve Malloy Mystery series, Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, Hell and High Water.

While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.

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  1. Yes. Descriptions like that are wonderful. Sue Grafton is another who was wonderful at bringing characters to life with just a few lines of description like this. Even her minor characters come to vivid life in one scene.

    It’s also nice to see someone who doesn’t need physical descriptions. I often form an image in my mind before we even get there, and I can’t switch it when we get a physical description.

  2. That’s a great example! I definitely appreciate poetic descriptions, but tbh, I’m okay with the blunt ones as well. As long as the bluntness serves the story anus not an example of lazy writing 🙂

      1. I didn’t mean to use Rory. Damned predictive text. When the writers for SNL go back to work, they could do a brilliant skit on how AI with predictive text is a nightmare.

  3. I do like to have some description of characters. It’s frustrating to have no idea how the author sees them. But “tall, heavy-set and muscular, with a bad haircut and a scar on his cheek” is fine. I don’t need more detail or a lot of elaboration unless it’s important for plot or character development. Dexter’s is powerful and colorful, but has too many similes for my taste. What she actually looks like got lost in all the verbiage.

    1. Who she was got lost in the verbiage because it was told from the character’s POV who was describing her. He’s an erudite, smug, Oxford don on his way to visit a hooker he frequents. In his head, he is making a big distinction between how refined and cultured she is and how vulgar she is to justify his use of her. That’s what’s brilliant about this description. It not only tells us something about what she looks like but a lot about the guy describing her.

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