One of the things my critique group believes in is that when you bring a character on stage for the first time, he or she needs at least a brief bit of description. Sounds reasonable, right? Give folks a visual to go along with the character’s name and actions, and help distinguish him or her from the others on stage.
I’m surprised now, after over thirty published novels, that I used to miss that basic principle in my earlier books. I’ll be working on the next book in a series and jump back to the last book to see what I’d said—and discover that the character walked on and off without a word of description.
So description has become one of those things I’ve trained my brain to do. Every time a new character walks on, give him or her some particular detail that establishes the character in the reader’s mind.
Here’s the opening paragraph from my latest M/M romance, A Cold Wind:
Slava Vishinev leaned back in the giant Roman tub of his luxury apartment in the Palazzo Raphael, at the edge of the Mediterranean in Monaco. He let the warm water slosh over his beefy thighs and then up, submerging his thick penis, then covering his broad chest. It was still a good body, he thought, though gray hairs had invaded his pubic thatch and the shag beneath his pecs. Too bad there was no one to see it.
I like the way the character is introduced doing something, even if it’s just taking a bath, and by including details of his gray hair, I can establish that he’s an older man without citing a particular age.
I try to use interesting language in descriptions, especially when they come so early in the book. Verbs like slosh, submerging and invaded add some oomph to the picture I’m painting.
Description can also indicate the attitude of the point of view character. Here’s the way Aidan Greene, one of the two heroes of the Have Body, Will Guard series looks at his partner:
Liam’s body was so well-sculpted it was like being up close and naked with Michelangelo’s David, though in flesh rather than stone. Broad shoulders, beefy biceps, a narrow waist, and a dick that was generous even in repose. His ass was tight, his thighs and calves well-muscled. Sure, some of his blond chest hairs had faded to white, and occasionally his bones creaked, but he was still the most amazing man Aidan had ever been with.
Can you tell that aging is one of the themes of the book?
Sometimes I can get away with using dialogue for description, as in this case, where Aidan and Liam’s neighbor, Thierry, is showing their little dog Hayam around his house:
He stood up, holding the dog in his arms, and began introducing her to Gabriel. “See how I am so skinny and Gabriel, he had more weight on him,” he said, pointing at one photo. “We had friends who said they reminded us of the American comedians, Laurel and Hardy.”
The technique Thierry is using is one I teach in my English lit classes, called “allusion,” which means referring to some shared cultural reference. I’m depending on the reader knowing who Laurel and Hardy are.
The best details, in my opinion, are ones that serve multiple purposes. For example, in this introduction of one of the regular supporting characters, a Tunisian-born architect named Hassan:
Louis’s husband was a slim man with skin the color of milky coffee, his dark hair artfully styled to cover a small bald spot. He was a few inches shorter than Aidan.
I’ve gotten across a couple of things here—first, these two men are married, or at least comfortable enough with each other to use the term husband. In addition to his general look I’ve established that he’s a bit vain—the way his hair is “artfully styled to cover a small bald spot.”
So I believe that my critique group is correct when they point out missing descriptions, because there’s so much more that be conveyed than simple details.
Please snag your copy of A COLD WIND at Loose Id here