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Friday, April 19, 2019


Are you the kind of reader who likes to have a detailed description of the hero or heroine in romance books? What about other secondary characters? And do you feel the same way about characters in books of genres other than western historical romance, or romance in general?

To me, there is a big difference in how much character description is needed in romance novels versus other genres, and here’s why.

When we read romance, we put ourselves in the story, empathizing with both the heroine and the hero. Of course, we need enough description to let us be familiar with them both, but this might be a case of “less” being “more.”

In our personal lives, we have preferences in how our romantic “leading men” look, speak, behave, and so on. If our preferences are toward the tall, dark, and handsome hero, it will be hard for us to be vested in a story with a hero who’s short, fair, and ugly. Or one who has habits we personally don’t find attractive.

I knew a woman who didn’t like blond heroes. If he had blond hair on the cover, she’d color it brown or black with a marker. In the book, if “blond” was mentioned, she’d mark through it and write whatever color of hair she’d decided he needed. I asked her about the heroines. “They’re all me,” she answered. “I don’t pay attention to their descriptions.”

It made me wonder how many others felt this way.

Stephen King had mentioned at one time in his book ON WRITING that “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

And in genres other than romance, character description is different and maybe more important, because the reader doesn’t have any preconceived expectations of the story, such as romance readers do.

When I taught creative writing classes, this description was one I used to illustrate how so much could be packed in to a short amount of words without being an info dump.
This is the beginning of St. Agnes’ Stand, by Thomas Eidson, who also wrote The Missing. Take a look:

He was hurt and riding cautiously. Thoughts not quite grasped made him uneasy, and he listened for an errant sound in the hot wind. His eyes were narrowed—searching for a broken leaf, a freshly turned rock, anything from which he could make some sense of his vague uneasiness. Nothing. The desert seemed right, but wasn’t somehow. He turned in the saddle and looked behind him. A tumbleweed was bouncing in front of the wild assaults from the wind. But the trail was empty. He turned back and sat, listening.

Over six feet and carrying two hundred pounds, Nat Swanson didn’t disturb easy, but this morning he was edgy. His hat brim was pulled low, casting his face in shadow. The intense heat and the wind were playing with the air, making it warp and shimmer over the land. He forced himself to peer through it, knowing he wouldn’t get a second chance if he missed a sheen off sweating skin or the straight line of a gun barrel among branches.

And then this, a couple of paragraphs down:

He had been running for a week, and he was light on sleep and heavy on dust and too ready for trouble. He’d killed a man in a West Texas town he’d forgotten the name of—over a woman whose name he’d never known. He hadn’t wanted the woman or the killing. Nor had he wanted the hole in his thigh. What he did want was to get to California, and that’s where he was headed. Buttoned in his shirt pocket was a deed for a Santa Barbara ranch. Perhaps a younger man would have run longer and harder before turning to fight and maybe die; but Nat Swanson was thirty-five years that summer, old for the trail, and he had run as far as he was going to run.

I absolutely love this. Can you feel that you’re right there with Nat Swanson as he’s riding? There are no wasted words, and this is just such an eloquent, masterful description of not only Nat, but the situation and the physical place he’s in as well as the dilemma he’s faced with.

Another excellent way of describing a character and setting the scene at the same time is from another character’s POV. This passage is from Jack Schaefer’s iconic classic, Shane—from the eyes of Bobby Starrett—when Shane first rides into his life.

This is just the very beginning of the book—there is more physical description of Shane a few paragraphs later, but I chose this passage because it lets us know what’s going on in a few short sentences—and that is real talent.

He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.

In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.

He came steadily on, straight through the town without slackening pace, until he reached the fork a half-mile below our place. One branch turned left across the river ford and on to Luke Fletcher’s big spread. The other bore ahead along the right bank where we homesteaders had pegged our claims in a row up the valley. He hesitated briefly, studying the choice, and moved again steadily on our side.

This is tough, because we’re seeing it through two “lenses”—Bobby is nine years old, and this is what he sees, but it’s filtered by the adult Bobby who’s now telling the story of what happened all those years ago.

In writing the story this way, the reader gets the full impact of experiencing the fears, the situation brings, the joy of having Shane there, and the anguish of his leaving all through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, with the adult overview that lets us know that Shane was not a hero—but he was to Bobby and those small time settlers who needed one so desperately. Yet, leaving was the only thing he could have done and kept Bobby’s view of him untarnished and intact.

Because we don’t know how the story will end, and we don’t know what to expect, we are learning about Shane’s character right along with Bobby so we are actively looking for details and descriptors the author might give us along the way—it will affect our opinion of Shane and let us know if Bobby is a reliable narrator, and it affects the outcome of the story.

I bring this up because in romance, seldom does the description have such a direct effect on the story itself, unless our main characters have scars, afflictions, or disabilities that might have some direct bearing on the story and its outcome.
So what do you think? Do you like a lot of description and detail about the WHR heroes you read about, or would you rather “fill in the blanks” for yourself?

As far as heroines go, most people I’ve talked to are not as concerned wither physical description (maybe because each person sees herself in the heroine?) but are more concerned with her personality traits—is she likable? Is she determined?

If she is not a fierce match for the hero, the story line is doomed.

And what about our hero? Though he can get away with more “questionable” traits, he has to be endowed with almost superhuman strength to overcome everything that’s thrown his way, and that is description that must be thoroughly detailed—not left to the reader’s interpretation.
(I apologize for the Amazon links being all over the place--I could not get them to "stick" under the book covers.)


  1. This is a great post, Cheryl, and it's come at a timely time for me. I've started a new series, with new characters, and even thought the story is developing as planned, there's only my shallow first draft depth of characterization. My first drafts tend toward dialog and action and then I become a word painter, layering in minimum character traits moving around and reacting in the story world. I love the rich resonance of your examples. I've been that kid sitting atop a fence rail, staring off in the distance. I understood instantly what the author conveyed and got sucked into the story world as if I were seeing through the POV character's eyes. Though I am out of the romance writing business for now, I have the same balancing act between protagonist and antagonist that romance authors have with hero and heroine. The strength of character absolutely has to match up or it won't be believable. That was especially true in my paranormal mystery series wherein the protagonist gained more abilities with each book.Then I had to work hard to craft villains with as much depth and dimension as my leading character. Anyway, this is great food for thought.

    1. Maggie, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm doing an entire blog series on this subject and I'm thoroughly enjoying writing these, finding the excerpts and so on.

      Yes, who doesn't identify with little Bobby Starrett looking out at the world from the fence rail and noticing ...SHANE!

      Yes, I can understand how, especially in a paranormal story, the villain and the protagonist have to be an equal match--anything slight might tip the balance for either of them.

      The next post in this series is about setting. I hope you'll enjoy it, too! So good to hear from you, Maggie!

  2. Cheryl, I so enjoyed this blog, so thank you A writer, whether writing main stream or romance what our readers need to see, feel, hear,and most of all want out the story. My WIP--lordy but it should have been done a long time ago, yet that's exactly what I'm checking and rechecking to make sure I've set the perfect picture for my readers. I look forward to the next installments of blogs regaring ongoing informative writing skills. Thanks so much as it always helps to refresh and rejuvenate our thinking caps when trying to set the tone and picture so our reader is engrossed.

    1. Bev, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I need to link all these posts together. I'll be posting next time about setting, and I had one before this--kind of "general" info.

      Yeah...where IS that WIP, anyhow? LOL Good to hear from you--been missing you! So glad you stopped by today!

  3. Great post. Love that you included Jack Schaefer's "Shane". Jack was kind of reclusive, but he was a favorite of a neighbor of mine. So much so he convinced his son to name his first child after the main character. Greg Tobin, a friend from back in the day, helped me contact Jack, and he was kind enough to autograph a book to the newborn. Twenty some years later, Shane Chapman still has the paperback. :)

    This was a terrific post. You pegged it all.

    1. Hi Kit! Great story! Shoot, most writers I know are included. LOL I love stories like this.

      So glad you enjoyed the post. I have a series of these planned and have had a lot of fun working on them. The next one is about settings--I had posted it over at the WF Blog a few days ago. Working on installment #4 now.

      Thanks so much for coming by!

  4. To answer your question . . . well, I can't. I don't write in the Romance or Western genres, but I have definite opinions about what I want my readers to know about the characters I create. For example, Biddy in BLACKBERRY ROAD, is she pretty or plain? You don't know, and you really don't care. You do get a clue, though, when you find out that her most hated nickname from her most ornery brother is "big lips." In today's world, that's a plus! What you do know about her as you read is that she's fourteen years old, sassy, full of righteous indignation about what's happening to Mr. Leroy, needs a new "permanent" on her hair, and can take down most of her younger brothers if she needs to. I think descriptions should reveal depth more than anything else, if that makes sense. I do know this . . . when I read Romance novels in my twenties, the hero and the heroin had to be stunningly gorgeous, full of integrity (even if it was buried and had to be sifted out later), and I was always right there on every word with what they wore, how their hair was coiffed, and what came out of their mouths.

    1. Oh, Jodi, how I love Biddy! She is such a great example of this idea of "less is more"--I have such a picture of her in my own mind just from what you DID say about her and her feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Yes, I believe that's the most important thing we can give our reader--insight to our characters' thought processes, ideals and beliefs. You did a stunning job with Biddy!

  5. When I first published I described my main characters often. I thought that's what a good author did. Over the years I have loosened my grip on that description idea.
    In the opening pages I still describe my characters. I mean ya gotta start somewhere to introduce these guys. Here and there I may mention a little smattering of a character's appearance, mostly to layer a scene and make it "real". But I think you're right, Cheryl, less is best. The readers may get a preview of what a character looks like, but through the story they build their own idea of what the characters look like from their own imagination. The best description of a character is his words and actions. If a hero or heroine ignores a child or a pet, I'm done. I don't care if they look good or not at that point.
    As a reader, I have been thrown off by a cover with the characters on it if I didn't find the hero appealing and drawn to buy that book if the cover had a hero on it that intrigued me or I thought must be the handsomest man on the planet. For quite some time, most covers didn't show headshots, just chests and six pack abs. Honestly, that got boring in its repetitiveness. I guess covers aren't going to please everyone so I suppose ya just have to roll the dice.
    But for my own work, I honestly don't like the main characters on it. It's a crap shoot whether they look like the people in my head or not. I prefer elements of importance to the story line featured on a cover. Covers are extremely important to sales. I am not strong in this area of marketing, so sometimes I have to leave it up to the cover designer to get the cover right.

    Great blog, Cheryl, and great food for thought, too.

    1. Sarah, I remember when I first started writing and I thought I needed to describe the characters in great detail. It was hard, because of course, we are taught not do the dreaded "info dump" and to a newbie author it's tough to figure out where to cram in the description as we think we should do--but as time goes on, you realize that you don't have to give every little detail of every single character! I'm right with you--if a character ignores or is mean to a child, an animal, or even to some degree of an elder, I don't care what they look like either--I already know they're a person I'm going to have real trouble liking.

      Thanks so much for stopping by today, Sarah! Hope you had a wonderful Easter.

  6. What a terrific blog. Especially at the beginning of a new manuscript, deciding how much detail to include about the protagonists is always difficult Thanks for sharing your insight.

    1. I know just what you mean, Ann, in trying to figure out how we are going to get our readers to view our characters and understand what kind of people they are, and of course we feel we need to give some ideas as to what they look like so the reader can picture them in their own mind--even if we just give a "guideline" for them to follow. It's a very tough call. Thanks for stopping by today!

  7. Brilliant blog, Cheryl. Love the idea of less being more and the examples you give are so telling.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Lindsay. My hope is to one day write even half as well as Eidson, L'Amour, and Schaefer. All just superb talent. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  8. Great post. The description of Shane was so masterfully done, with the air of mystery captured brilliantly by what was left unspoken, and not understood by the child. So much to learn, so little time!

    1. The very fact that he noticed the two cowboys turn in their saddles and look back at Shane lets us know there is something special about him. THAT is real talent, to put in those kinds of details that let the reader know they're watching something going on, but WHAT? The mystery deepens...LOL Thanks for stopping by Christine!