Do your character descriptions read like a BOLO? If you don’t know, a BOLO is law enforcement speak for ‘Be On the Look Out’. When police dispatch sends out a BOLO, they include a ‘blotter’ description of a suspected wrongdoer: male, about 5 feet 10, dark brown hair and eyes, wearing jeans, white sneakers, and a blue and gold striped rugby shirt. That kind of thing. BOLOs are terrific for a cop, but not so good for the writer. Here are a few little tips on how to avoid giving readers a laundry list of character attributes:
Use the Physical to Evoke the Emotional
Here is my description of Imdiko Krijero from my book Alien Slave:
The one who wasn’t touching Dani had tousled hair to his shoulders, softly rumpled like he’d forgotten to brush it. His face was lean, his nose slender and pointed. There was a bemused smile on his gentle features, and he looked at Dani as if he studied a particularly fascinating butterfly he’d swooped up in a net. He looked intense and friendly all at once.
She noticed his shirt stretched tight over his wide chest and shoulders, but where it hung loose and untucked, a jigsaw puzzle of wrinkles marred the ivory fabric. He was obviously not worried about appearances, but he was attractive enough to get away with it.
These two paragraphs, specifically where they describe Krijero’s unbrushed hair and wrinkled shirt, are a hint of his awkward bearing in social situations. His intense expression as he tries to figure out the heroine is indicative of his being a criminal psychologist. These little details reveal a great deal about the character to the reader.
Revealing How the Character Feels About Herself and How Others Perceive Her
The heroine Dani from Alien Slave feels she is as awkward as Krijero, which is the foundation on which they initially relate to each other. She views her own clumsiness a bit differently from his however, giving me a terrific opportunity to describe her in detail:
A pair of Reggie’s hands/feet gripped her knees, holding her wide open. Another pair held the parts of her buttocks not covered by the swing’s straps. She possessed plenty of flesh for him to hang onto. For such a spindly woman, she thought she had a lot of backyard real estate. In contrast, her smallish breasts, while well-shaped, disappeared beneath the Isetacian’s three-fingered grasp. At almost six feet tall, Dani was an elongated pear when she didn’t think of herself as a big, galumphing horse.
Not only did I get some physical description in this passage, but I emphasized Dani’s lack of self-esteem over her appearance. The contrast between how she sees herself and how others view her is heightened when Krijero’s clanmate Gelan assesses Dani:
Truth be told, his fingers twitched to run all over her long, supple body. The Earther was stunning from head to toe. Her thick waves of copper hair shone with golden highlights. It reminded him of sunrise over the mountain in which he lived. Her tiny upturned nose was a counterpoint to plump, luscious lips, lips he could all too easily imagine admitting his aching cocks into the warm cavern of her mouth. Her neck was a long column that even the twin streaks of drying blood from Krijero’s bite couldn’t mar. Her breasts were shaped perfectly with rosy tips that begged to be mouthed.
Gelan was sure he could wrap his hands around her trim waist and have fingertip meet fingertip, thumb meet thumb. Despite her long, lean frame, her hips flared out wide, a perfect cradle to hold his. And with ample rounded buttocks, he’d have plenty to grab onto as he rode her.
Description as Cultural Background
Another character in the book is Nobek Wynhod, the alien version of a cop. His job as a sniper means he must be ready to kill at a moment’s notice without hesitation. Coming from the specific culture of law enforcement and a sniper’s lethal and decisive attitude, I made these attributes part of his description:
Dani looked up and up at the face of the man holding her with arms of steel. His gaze on her was sharp too, but instead of clinical interest, he looked at her as if trying to decide how she would taste. More rugged than his companions, the fierce creature looked like a born hunter. His jaw couldn’t have been squarer, his high cheekbones lending him haughtiness like some kingly savage. His skull, most of it shaved so that a long Mohawk strip of hair hung down his back, was beautifully formed. He was as handsome as a tiger, and every bit as deadly.
Description Illustrating Ethnicity
I deal with aliens a lot with my writing, and their differences help to make them stand out from other characters, such as the Isetacian Reggie from the first scene of Alien Slave:
Her large brown eyes half-lidded in trance, Dani traced the hard ridge of bone along Reggie’s back. It broke through his gray skin, a purplish-black lumpy crest. The first time she’d seen an Isetacian, she’d thought the creature had been horrifically injured, its skin flayed to expose the skeleton along the spine and joints. When she’d discovered that was the norm for the six-legged race (or six-armed … with Isetacians, it was impossible to tell), she’d been both fascinated and repulsed.
Back here on Earth, ethnic differences can provide background as well as description. Think of how someone would look whose features mix the broad characteristics of her Scottish father and the leaner ones of a Native American mother. This is an excellent opportunity to not only describe her physical characteristics but also the disparate cultures she comes from.
Letting Description Mark Differences Between Characters
Krijero is clumsy. His clanmate Wynhod is graceful. Their differences help illuminate each to the reader, and Wynhod’s reactions to his friend’s awkwardness also tells us a lot about his character:
Krijero’s attempts weren’t quite as precisely timed as his clanmates’ but Wynhod didn’t think the sheclir would mind. It would only care that a meal awaited it above ground.
He felt sorry for his Imdiko, clumsy not only physically but socially as well. It had taken over ten years of working with the psychologist to appreciate the man’s strong points, and even then it had been Gelan who recognized how perfect Krijero was for their clan. It took another three to prove themselves to the reluctant Imdiko, but it had been worth it.
Wynhod tried to find the right words to calm Krijero’s fears, to let him know potential rejection from Dani wouldn’t be the end of the universe. Before he could, a thrum of vibration traveled from the soles of his heavily booted feet to the top of his head. He froze, and so did the other two.
As one they resumed stomping, all slowly drawing their blades. A sheclir was coming fast to judge from the now shuddering ground. At Gelan’s nod, all three spread out in a triangle. The earth quaked, and a low roar announced the sheclir’s arrival within seconds. Wynhod trained his gaze on the ground in the space between the clan, but also made sure he could keep an eye on Krijero. He wouldn’t allow the Imdiko’s clumsiness to get him killed. No trophy was worth that.
As you can see, the possibilities for describing your characters to your readers are endless. Just stay away from those BOLOs, okay?