Wednesday, July 8, 2015

To See? Or not to See?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Coming up: more reservations (from Matt Coyle)! And another giveaway.  

But first: AND THE WINNERS (from yesterday) are:

Of the Jungle Red Writers book of choice, (you name it, you get it, including (but no pressure) an ARC of Hank’s upcoming WHAT YOU SEE but really, any JRW book) is Kate  (who posted at 10:07)

And because Lucy is SO touched by all your support, she’s giving a copy of FATAL RESERVATIONS to:   Bonnie K.    (But, deep in our hearts, we hope you will all buy it. And we hope that this is Bonnie K’s second copy. )

Just send your addresses to me via my website.

SO now, for today, more reservations. Of a different kind. The talented Matt Coyle has reservations about—how his character looks.

To See or Not to See? That is Matt’s question. 

What do you think? And then tell us at the end to win Matt’s 

first book, YESTERDAY’S ECHO.

MATT COYLE: First, I want to thank Hank Phillippi Ryan for inviting me to post on Jungle Red Writers. It’s an honor. Hank has been like a Fairy Godsister in my fledgling writing career, sprinkling a little fairy dust at important times along the way.

HANK: Aw. You’re doing pretty fine, bub. Anthony Award and all.

MATT: Thanks! But I’ve been writing Rick Cahill for thirteen years. The fact that this has only produced two published novels and an, as of yet, unfinished third book could be discouraging. However, if you take into account how many times I rewrote the first book, YESTERDAY’S ECHO, it really comes in at around six or seven books. The point is I know Rick very well. By book three, he’s thirty-six years old.
He owns a home with a sliver of an ocean view.

He’s a private detective and drives a black 2006 Mustang GT.

 He’s a widow and currently single. His sidekick is his six year-old black Labrador, Midnight.

I write in first person so I’m in Rick’s head all the time. I know what he’s thinking when he doesn’t speak and I know the dreams he has but never tells anyone about. I know when he makes a tragic decision well before the tragedy happens. I know the truth about him even when he tries to fool himself.

I just don’t know what he looks like.

Well, I know in general terms. He’s around six feet tall and physically fit, but not a gym rat. Sturdy over thin. He’s of Irish descent and probably somewhat fair-skinned. 

Hair color? Not blond, black or red, so that leaves some shade of brown. Eyes? I don’t know.

Facial looks, not a clue. I’ve never seen his face. I almost saw it once in YESTERDAY’S ECHO. After surviving a home invasion, battered and beaten, Rick takes stock:

I got out of the shower and looked at myself in the mirror. Steam blotted out my reflection.

That’s as close as I’ve gotten and that’s fine with me. I don’t have to know what Rick looks like. I just have to know who he is.

I’m from the school of thought that thinks it’s best to sometimes let the reader fill in empty space with their own imagination. Not that I want to give them a complete blank canvas. Here’s a description from my second book, NIGHT TREMORS, that gives a bit of both:

Her voice sounded like pocket change rattling around in a clothes dryer. Loud. Jarring. Unexpected. She couldn’t have been taller than five feet or weighed more than ninety pounds. Brown eyes the size of coasters took up most of her face. Lips took up the rest. Auburn hair in a bob cut. Late thirties, early forties, but wearing it easy. Everything fit together. Not pretty, but attractive.

I let the readers fill in the blank spaces on Rick Cahill. He lives inside my brain 24/7 and I see his thoughts before they appear in his own head. But when it comes to his face, the steam is still covering the mirror.

A question for readers: Do you want a character’s physical characteristics all spelled out so you can see things exactly as the writer wants you to or do you like to fill in some of the empty space yourself?

For writers: How much physical detail do you give in describing your protagonist? How important is it to you to know exactly what he or she looks like?

HANK: Yeah, what do you think?  I struggle with that every day! I just wrote a new character, TV documentary producer Fiola (not Fiona!) Morello. What does she look like? I’m still working that out. What do YOU think she looks like? Or should I follow Matt’s lead? 

Rick Cahill risks losing his home, his freedom, and even his life when he battles corrupt police, the criminal justice system, a friend turned enemy, a vicious biker gang, and a psychopathic murder as he tries to free an innocent man from prison.

Matt Coyle knew he wanted to be a crime writer as a youngster when his father gave him THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER by Raymond Chandler. It only took him forty years to achieve his goal. His first novel, YESTERDAY’S ECHO, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery, and the Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction. His second novel, NIGHT TREMORS, came out in June.


  1. I don't have a strong opinion regarding character descriptions. I don't mind if the author describes the character, but I also don't mind picturing the character for myself as long as I get a couple of hints . . . [six feet, sturdy, Irish descent, fair-skinned] and I've got a mental picture that works for me without being annoyed that the author didn't tell me more.

    Matt, I'm looking forward to reading "Yesterday's Echo" . . . .

    Hank, I've got no idea what Fiola Morello looks like, but I love the name!

  2. Sounds like a fun book, Matt. Hank, I love this.

    Matt, if I don't have some description for male detectives, my mind defaults to Spenser, which makes me picture Robert B Parker and get all weepy.

    Hank, with your women characters my mind defaults to you. You with blonde hair, you with dark brown hair... but if she's older she looks like Brenda Blethyn. Children look like Dick and Jane.

    My visualizations need help.

    1. Reine, I actually think of Brenda Blethyn when I write Rick.

  3. Yes, funny about "default" looks. I'm t grilled you think of me with the characters…I kind of guess I do, too, even though Jane doesn't look like me at all (I now have a photo of Tea Leoni on my desk for her, don't hoot) and Charlie kind of does.

    But thinking about it, my visions of characters in other peoples books are a bit fuzzy-- are actual character is not crystal clear. I'm trying to picture Kinsey Milhone, which should be very easy. But I bet ,even though we all have a vision of her, it'd be different.

    Diversity is also a dilemma--if I describe someone as black--why don't I also have to describe someone as white?

  4. So interesting, Matt - and the book sounds great.

    I don't think the character's facial details etc. matter as long as the author makes vivid other people's reaction to the character's appearance and demeanor and actions. Blue eyes or brown? Who cares. Unless one is brown and one is blue... and that's meaningful in terms of his back story. What matters more is does he meet your gaze or avoid eye contact. Are they rheumy from lack of sleep or a hangover?

    Isn't there a main character somewhere in crime fiction who the author never reveals to be male or female?

  5. I agree, a few details (height, hair style and color) leaving the rest up to the reader's imagination.

  6. Oh, is there? I'm trying to think if you would have a character who isn't male or female. NOt counting aliens or cyborgs or whatever.

    Huh. Funny how that takes away a lotos the shorthand.

  7. I think you are right Hallie. I remember hearing about that book, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was called. It was first person and I remember there was discussion of a love interest, but they never said if the lead was a man, woman, gay or straight.

    That's going to bug me.

    As for character descriptions, I can go either way on it. I usually get a mental picture of a character and while that sometimes doesn't match the official description, I'm ok with that. What I don't like is a photo on the cover - unless it's something like they do with Hank's books, where you really can't get much detail.

    As for Mr. Coyle, his books are great, so be sure to check them out folks!

  8. I read a lot of cozy series and like a pretty good description. It makes it easier to get back in the "mood" of the series when you haven't read one in a few years. Stand alone books need less and my imagination fills in nicely, unless a feature or trait is revealed late in the book and ruins my mental picture!


  9. Sarah Caudwell's Hilary something, I think. A lawyer (or maybe a barrister, since the three books in the series were set in England).

    I don't do a lot of description of characters, either, although relative height and build can be important to the plot. Usually my protagonists are younger, prettier, thinner, and a lot smarter than I am.


  10. Hey Matt,

    Night Tremors sounds terrific - I think I'd very much like to meet Rick, so have added it to my TBR list now.

    In my own work, I'm vague about my protagonist's appearance. The reader knows Joe Gale has size 11 feet, curly hair that he wears on the shaggy side and is fairly athletic. There is no mention of him wearing glasses. The rest is left to the imagination.


  11. Dashing? Obviously, Hank was vague on my physical appearance and filled out the rest with her imagination. See, it works!

  12. Welcome, Matt! I'm in your camp on this one — we know Maggie hope has red hair and her age — that's really about it. We see how other people react to her and how she looks. When introducing new characters, I try to focus on what may be a bit off about them. I think it helps the reader keep everyone straight. (Or, at least, that's what I hope...)

    Huge fan of yours and Rick's! (And in my mind, he has gray eyes.)

  13. Steven Rigolosi wrote a wonderful mystery called ANDROGYNOUS MURDER HOUSE PARTY. Story is told in the first person by a person named Robin and you can't tell if Robin is male or female. Rigolosi is a marvelous creative writer who had a new book out as well, The Outsmarting of Criminals. Thought I actually might have read about it here some time ago.

    If a writer is going to describe an important character, do it on their introduction. Otherwise, the reader could be startled from the story by her own mental image. Personally, I'm with Elmore Leonard on this. Don't do it.

    Good luck Matt! Sounds like a good one.

  14. Forgot to to tell Hank that I'll give away a copy of NIGHT TREMORS to go along with YESTERDAY'S ECHO. Not sure how to determine the winner yet, but Dashing is in the running!
    Have to drive to LA for book promo stuff. Will try to check in between stores.

  15. As a reader, I don't need a lot of physical description. I can usually fill it in myself. And when I see a TV/movie depiction that doesn't match it is quite jarring.

    As a writer, I am thin, I think. I mean, I have a very clear picture for myself of course. In my Laurel Highlands series, my protagonist is a cop, a little over six feet, good shape, brown hair, and hazel eyes. The hazel eyes are important because they change color depending on his mood - dark to alive with flecks of gold. The woman is undetermined height, not too skinny, dark hair, green eyes. Now, in my mind I see a young Mark Harmon and Angie Harmon. Whether readers see them that way, well, don't know.

    For my WIP, I don't think I've ever talked about his appearance - except that he's tall. I mean really tall. Like 6'6". And that only came up because his former partner is short - like 5'3". I referred to them once as Mutt and Jeff. And that's it. Again, in my head he looks like Laurence Fox. But that's just in my head.

    I'm thinking I need to spend some time with Rick Cahill.

  16. As a reader, I'm not fond of overmuch description, but it doesn't take me out of the story-- I just forget it and substitute my own casting anyway. (And it has just occurred to me that my mental images of Clare Fergusson and Gemma James could be cousins. I've no idea why.)

    What I do find is that thereafter, if a television program or film is made of the book and casting goes far astray from the written description, it's profoundly irritating. Particularly if the character is, say, supposed to be sturdy enough to perform battlefield surgery but is cast with an actor who looks like a strong wind would break him/her in half.

  17. As for Fiola Morello (awesome name!), the only image I get from the brief description is that she isn't vain about the beginnings of grey in her hair, nor does she over-do the make-up.
    If she's Filmmaker Barbie, don't tell me!

  18. I agree, Jennifer! How often have we said "She doesn't look like THAT!" ANd I am thinking of Rizzoli and Isles, particularly.

    And oh, that's a different way of thinking about Fiola. what if she were..younger? I think she has to be younger. What then?

  19. Yay, Kathy Lynn Emerson: YES! Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar (sex unknown).

    Of course it's a first person narrator - no way could you pull off the male-female ambiguity with a third-person narrator.

  20. How much younger? Absent any other information, I'm now envisioning a somewhat younger, Italian Rory Kennedy.

  21. Jack, I think Stephen Rigolosi is hilarious. Quite brilliant.

    And Clare to me, looks like Julia. Gemma is Debs. Gotta be.

    Maggie Hope is the woman on the cover.

    What of you think about an image on the cover? (On WHAT YOU SEE, there's a young woman whose face you can see. It's not Jane, though.)

  22. I like enough description to get a sense of the character--and the details can come from other characters' response to and interactions with, the protagonist. What's bothersome as a reader is when some detail doesn't jive with previous details.

    And I totally agree on the casting! A case in point, the German movies made of a famous mystery author's novels. And the movie from a famous Canadian's mysteries. In both cases, I've seen stills and the actors chosen in no way reflect my strong internal visions for these characters. Have to say, if these movies were available in the USA, I wouldn't watch.

  23. This is such a great topic, and one I've been thinking about lately, how our imaginations (at least mine) default to a particular type of person when reading. This has come up for me a few times recently when I've seen people with unusual physical attributes that in some way vastly transcend the stereotypical "old man", "elderly woman", "grocery checker", etc. Real people are so colorful, and yet our minds don't always go there when we're reading. I've spent some time pondering why this is so.

    Maybe, do you think, it's because of Hollywood? Everyone is beautiful or handsome, especially these days. Old-time character actors aren't used like they were 30, 40 years ago, it seems. That was one of the most intriguing conceits of the TV show "Joan of Arcadia", where Amber Tamblyn played a young girl named Joan who kept getting messages from God, as portrayed by lots of different people. My favorite was Kathryn Joosten, who later also played the busybody neighbor Karen/Mrs. McCluskey on Desperate Housewives--an unlikely character actor, but someone who looks like a real person.

  24. Karen, I think that's it exactly. If you watch much European television, casting is much less...shiny. Olivia Colman would never have made it on American shows, but she's brilliant. And Alex Kingston has mentioned being unable to get roles in LA because she's too curvy, too fifty, too...whatever. If she's not beautiful enough for American shows, our standards are skewed.
    There's a book series which has recently been made into a series on cable-- one of the characters was described in the books as being very tall and wearing a size eighteen (American, UK/Aus 22). It will be interesting to see how that part is cast. If they actually put a size eighteen woman in that role, I'll eat my hat.

  25. Congratulations on YESTERDAY'S ECHO, Matt! Count me in the no-need-to-describe club. I think writers should give their characters enough of a description for readers to hang their hats on, so to speak. I'm fond of describing characters through other characters viewpoints - the reader gets an image in his or her head, but we also come to know more about the character who's doing the describing. In my novels, the hero almost always thinks about the heroine's hair in edible terms: "sunlight through whisky" and "cinnamon and maple syrup."

    Hallie, I recently read LOCKED IN by John Scalzi, a SF novel where the main character, an FBI agent named Chris, is never gendered. It's done so subtly that I didn't realize until I had finished the book and read some reviews!

  26. I write character description as I like to read it, open to interpretation but consistent. I love when a character's looks come up naturally in the story. My main character has wild red curly hair, and it comes up because she feels awkward standing out because of it.

    Most characters come pretty fully formed for me when I write (and read) and based on real life people in my life. It makes for a less TV-ified cast.

    A similar thing happens when I read, right down to reading characters as more diverse than authors may have written them. So don't worry about writing diversity, I'll add it.

    Hank, Fiola Morello is a great name. I would read her a multi-racial, possibly Mediterranean and African-American or Hispanic.

    (Oh, Hank, I'll send you an email about the book I won yesterday. Thank you so much!)

  27. I must admit, I can never remember descriptions of characters. Unless a feature is talked about quite a bit, I form an image in my mind and go with that. So sometime later, someone might comment on a character's appearance, and I do a double take because that's not how I picture them. And yet, they are right and I'm wrong.

  28. Yes, but Julia, you mean you didn't picture a person? At all?

    And I agree, describing a person by what they aren't; or in comparison to someone else, that works for me. Even (over-simplifiedly) she looked up into his eyes, versus she looked into his eyes.

  29. I do like descriptions of the main characters, but even then, I'm betting the picture of that character differs in readers' minds. And, although I like a description, I can do fine with a few bare bones about their physicality. Of course, sometimes the physical description is integral to the story, as in Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi, in which the main character is a midget, and that is part of the essence of the book. However, now that I think about it, a full description isn't essential even there.

    I do seem to have an obsession with age. I really want to know how old the main characters are, or at least within a few years range. As is often the nature of obsessions, I can't explain why this particular descriptor is so important.

    And,count me in on being dissatisfied with many television and movie choices, in terms of how the onscreen version meshes with my reading version. Hank, I agree completely about Rizzoli and Isles. Although I like the actresses playing them, they do not get close to my image of them.

    Now, back to packing for my trip and wondering what kind of mess I'm going to encounter in the morning with United Airlines. They were shut down for an hour this morning due to a computer problem, and it's a red hot mess now. I have 3 different flights to get me to Honolulu, and delays will make me miss connections. Hey, somewhere in there is a murder mystery.

  30. I want some hints and a general description, but I don't like so much detail about how the character looks that that is all I think about. Based on how the character acts I will get my own mental image and I prefer that.

  31. I don't need much description of characters and will often skim over details of wardrobe and such unless integral to the plot. In storytelling most tellers leave much of that out of the tale so the listeners can see their own versions. I don't mind it, and feel sure others must want those details. I love description of place, making a book like a mini-vacation.
    Intrigued by the Hilary Tamar reference, and reminded of "Survival Ship" by Judith Merril in which reference to officers and men and a complete avoidance of personal pronouns created mystery. My students had much to say after reading it.

  32. I like a bit of description but not too much. A few people have asked what actors would I want to portray characters -- that is always a tough one too since I'm not exactly sure what they look like. I love that Rick looked in the mirror but couldn't see himself!

  33. As a reader I like an "outline" of what a character looks like: height maybe, hair color, gender. Maybe age. Just a general picture I can fill in if I want to. I do want details on the things that make the character stand out. Scars, for example. Or a limp. There is always a story to go with those characteristics.

  34. Love this particular insight, Matt: "I don’t have to know what Rick looks like. I just have to know who he is." I feel that if a writer knows who a character is, then the reader will be able to visualize him or her without needing all of the physical details - in this way, the character belongs to the reader as much as the writer, which is always a satisfying experience. Can't wait for your upcoming reading at Vroman's!!

  35. With all this excellent conversation about describing the characters, how much influence does the author have over the cover illustration of the characters? Susan Elia McNeil's comment on the sparseness of her description of Maggie Hope gave me this question. The cover illustration is a good deal more than "red hair" and age. And, although she is not a Jungle Red, Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple's description is so very different from the cover illustrations! Such interesting thoughts.

  36. Oh, great question, Elisabeth! I'd love to hear from Susan about her experience, bt I think each author has a different relationship with each cover!

    In THE OTHER WOMAN, the woman in red on the cover is not identifiable--on purpose. I think its perfect.

    In THE WRONG GIRL, the woman is not Jane. But it feels like "reporter." Which is great.

    In TRUTH BE TOLD-- It might be Jane, but it isn't. (I asked them to make her outfit a bit different than the first design--they did.)

    And on WHAT YOU SEE, it's definitely not Jane. But I do know who it is! And you will, too, when you read the book.

    So each time, the person on the cover is a major player int he story--but not Jane.

  37. Marianne in MaineJuly 8, 2015 at 4:36 PM

    Hi Matt.

    I refer not to have complete descriptions of the character. Generalities are fine - height, hair color, but I can live without that. I never really get a picture of any characters in my head as I read. And I never refer to the cover illustration as a basis for the character description. Very often they are so far off.

    But I know Gabriel Allon, Darcy O'Mara, Duncan Kincaid, etc. are all stunningly handsome.

    (I haven't read all the preceding posts so I apologize if I'm reiterating what others have said.)

  38. And Reacher,too, right? RIght? Handsome.

    And yes, Sherry, I always hesitate to name an actor in interviews or events. It narrows it too much.
    Every time I've tried it, someone groans. Oh NO, they cry. ALL WRONG!

  39. Marianne in MaineJuly 8, 2015 at 5:23 PM

    Oh yes, Hank! Reacher is a hunk. As long as I can keep Tom Cruise out of my head. (Worst casting ever.)


    Like, actively, determinedly bad.

  41. Finally back from LA!
    Thanks, Hallie, Kristopher, and Brenda!

  42. Thanks, Susan! Sadly, Rick's eyes are often surrounded by black and blue, but gray sounds like a good possibility to me. Can't see through the steam...

  43. Mary-give Rick a call. He needs some new friends.

  44. Thanks, Kim! Can't wait to see you at Vroman's!

  45. I agree, Sherry. I'm not sure I'd want someone else's idea of Rick imprinted on my brain...but I'd cash the check!

  46. I kind of liked Cruise as Reacher. Made me feel tall for once.

  47. Thanks to all the contributors and commenters for welcoming me into Jungle Red! What a great community!

  48. Thank you, Hank, for the words about your cover/character illustrations. Now, I need to start reading...yes, I confess, I've not read any of your books and I'm sure that I am missing something.

  49. Hank, I think it feels dangerous to mention diversity as a concept for fear that its bringing up will verify what we are concerned about. There is no way to mention to mention diversity without inviting tension.

    Reading Linda Rodriguez' as well as Robert B Parker's novels with do not present these same issues, because race is clear and part of the story.

    This may be truer of Linda’s characters, especially Skeet Bannion, since culture and ethnicity are welcome and important pieces to her storylines.

    Culturally, I’m not sure about Parker’s Hawk, as he seems a bit of a foil with culture not a real part of the story, but I’m definitely glad he’s in there. I haven’t read any of the books with Cholla so don’t want to comment there.

    Again I am late and sorry, because this was an excellent and fun discussion.

  50. Matt, I can handle Brenda Blethyn as any character, even Rick.