by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I was writing in Starbucks in Hermosa Beach one Friday night and the town was hopping. A number of ultra-hip, Hollywood type dance clubs have opened in this little village, devolving what had once been an organically cool jazz/blues biker scene into simply more of the same L.A. bullshit. Cafe Bugaloo still brings live blues bands in from the Mississippi Delta, but they go DJ techno-pop starting at 11:00 pm. Then it’s long lines, bouncers and attitude.

The cafe was busy with marauding twenty year-olds popping in to add a little caffeine to their drunk. A group of four guys sat down in leather arm chairs beside me. They had come from one club and were headed to the next. They spoke extra loud – I could hear the music from the last place pounded in their heads.

“I’ll tell you something,” one said to the other three. “When I see a chick I want to pick up I say, ‘I like your face.'”

The friends nodded sagely. “Yeah. That’s good,” one said.

“Try it,” the first one encouraged.

“Yeah,” the others agreed.

I like your face.

Really? You don’t even want to pick a particular feature to emphasize? How about…her eyes, for instance?

“I like your face” is like saying, “Hey, we both have arms!”

How about something like…”Man, I’m sorry, but I can’t stop staring at your eyes. I hope it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it’s just that…I’ve never seen eyes so blue. They’re just, really bright, and blue, and sharp. They’re gorgeous.”

Now you might have her attention. Put a little effort into it, asshole.

Or maybe she has one of those arcing, Roman noses and you catch her looking longingly at the pinky-noses of her friends. So maybe you try something like this:

“You’ve got a real exotic look, you know. And your nose is just…elegant. Don’t ever change it.”

Listen, anything I put down is going to sound like a shallow pick-up line. That’s why I never went to dance clubs to meet girls. Every conversation sounds exactly like this:

Guy – “(Garbled noise)”

Girl – “What?!”

Guy – “I said (garbled noise)”

Girl – “What?!”

Guy – “I like your face!”

And come on, girls…if you look at him and think, “God, that was sweet, he’s so sincere,” then you deserve what you get.

The line makes me think of one of my great writing weaknesses: describing people. I hate it. I can’t help making everyone sound like a caricature. “He had bushy eyebrows and big, puffy jowls.” That’s the kind of shit I start to write and then I think…what did I just write? So I try to think of people I know and how to describe them and I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound absolutely dull. “She had a button nose and tiny wrinkles in the corners of her eyes.” Ugh. I don’t know, but to me, everyone looks roughly the same. “She had two eyes, a nose and a mouth that opened when she spoke.” That’s how I see everyone. The differences are too subtle to note.

“He parted his thin hair to the left.” What does it matter?! Does that really tell me anything about the character? Because that’s what a character description should do, in my opinion, tell me something about how the character thinks and feels. How he sees himself.

“He had a face that people liked.” There, that was easy.

Dickens was one of those writers who could nail a description. God, I love how he described the lawyer in Great Expectations – how the man was always washing his hands. The way his characters looked, how they did their “stage business,” what their mannerisms were…all this revealed character. Often they revealed something that countered the conscious efforts these characters made to impress others. Their faces revealed something else, something dark or sinister, or weak, or sick. The weight of life and difficult decisions etched in their foreheads.

To me, writing effective, multi-layered character descriptions is – and I’m talking about physical descriptions and mannerisms only – one of the hardest things I attempt.

I’m reading Walter Mosley’s “All I Did Was Shoot My Man” and his character descriptions knock my socks off. He makes it seem easy:

“Gert Longman was dark-skinned and heavy the way old-time movie stars used to be.”

“The rhyming young men were dirty, probably high, and likely homeless–but they were singing and moving to an imagined beat that men had been keeping alive in their breasts longer than there were any buildings or buses–or prisons.”

“She had amber skin with pecan brown freckles, burnt orange eyes, and an expression that had been spawned when she needed a doting parent to indulge her fears. The fact that she was near sixty had not extinguished the fears haunting her worried inner child.”

“The girl was cinnamon colored in the way of Native America after it had been raped by Europe.”

“His mottled tanned skin seemed to come from sportsmanship and not vanity. His trousers were khaki and shirt lime cotton. His feet were moccasined in red-brown leather and his hair was onyx and silver as opposed to the more pedestrian salt-and-pepper.”

Beautiful, ain’t it? It would take me a week to come up with lines half as good. Mosley’s descriptions reveal character. And, since the book is written in first person, the descriptions also reveal the character of the observer himself; the narrator, the protagonist. The way he describes people shows us that he is a poet himself. It reveals the quality of his education, it underscores his sense of disillusion and his loneliness.

All this to say that there’s more to a description than meets the eye.

What is it about her face that you like?

“Listen, writer dude, I just want to get laid, all right? And the line works, so shut the fuck up.”

The last time I was at a club with my wife I decided to give it a shot.

Me – “(Garbled noise)”

My Wife – “What?”

Me – “I said (garbled noise)”

My Wife – “What?!”

Me – “I like your ass!”

I feel I can take some liberties here; we’ve been married a long time.

She gave me a cock-eyed look then smiled and took my hand. We left the club together.

If she falls for a shallow line like that then she deserves what she gets.

20 thoughts on “I LIKE YOUR FACE

  1. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Excellent post. Funny and intelligent. You're right about how difficult it is to nail character descriptions. Actions for me too. I noticed at one point there was a lot of shrugging and sighing happening in my writing. Mosley is a favorite of mine, so right on with your praise for his ability to truly get to the heart of a character with a brief description. And a big smile for your closing.

  2. Sarah W

    I love Dashiell Hammett's descriptions, too — "pleasantly like a blonde Satan."

    Describing POV characters has been a worry for me ever since I had the "looking at a mirror/reflection/image" thing beaten out of me.

    Pick-up lines haven't been a worry for a long, blessed time.

  3. Alaina

    Describing POV characters is something I struggle with. I struggle with all descriptions, but POV characters most.

    It's gotten to the point where I try not to describe characters all at once. By chapter 5, you'll know the main character's got long hair and their general height, but that's because I'll write about them looking up into other people's eyes or moving her hair out of the way of a necklace. More is left to the imagination. Because it's hard.

  4. Sandy

    Wonderful post, content and rhythm! And you've reminded me that description I appreciate is purposeful, not obligatory.

  5. Blair

    "I like your face".

    Tells me more about that young man than any physical character description.

    Just saying'.


  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great post! Actually I've met some men who could make "I like your face" work. But it has nothing to do with the words.

    Those Mosely descriptions are just gold. It's all about the metaphor. Physical description is about the most boring thing in the world to read, and some authors go on and on about it as if they're actually saying something. Never understood that.

  7. Lisa Alber

    I'm so glad I'm not a twenty-something anymore, that much I know. "I like your face" !!? I'm sure that guy gets laid all the time too — that's the insane part.

    Descriptions are hard. Just hard. One way I differentiate a character is by choosing something unique…Like, a character who wears a tattered friendship bracelet and always fiddles with it. Or a woman whose bangs are too long but that's because she'd hiding a scar on her forehead. Stuff like that.

    I'm only halfway-decent at physical descriptions when I know my POV character inside and out…and even then, well, sometimes my POV character isn't very observant! 🙂

  8. Gar Haywood

    Schwartz, you continue to amaze me. Great post. I'm with you on character description — it's like pulling teeth with me.

    And God, couldn't all us guys write a post on what a nightmare it is, trying to figure out what to say to a girl that WON'T get us laughed into a fetal position?

  9. lil Gluckstern

    These "shallow" lines are often welcome to the recipient. Maybe they're having a bad day, or are feeling insecure 🙂 And to tell your wife that you liked her ass. A marriage counselor couldn't have orchestrated a better line. Shallow, maybe, but effective-she smiled, didn't she?

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Phillip – yes, shrugging and sighing fill my first drafts. And eyebrow-raising. And nodding. It drives me crazy. This is the first time I'm reading Mosley – where have I been? He's a new favorite.

    Sarah – shit, I'm supposed to have the "looking into mirror/reflection/image" thing beaten out of me? That's exactly how I describe Hayden Glass in Beat – he sees his reflection in a pharmacy window. Well, someday I'll learn. It's a long process, this writing thing.

    Alaina – I like that – I like that slow reveal, over the course of many chapters. But I've had others criticize me for this – people who want something to anchor them with a character description up front. I see a nice balance of this in Mosley's work.

    Sandy – Thanks – that's a good definition – purposeful, not obligatory. Nice.

    Blair – you're right. Sometimes a purposeful line of dialogue tells you everything you need to know.

    Alex – I gotta meet those guys – they must be masters at the craft! Sounds like the character Will Farrell plays in The Wedding Crashers – the guru himself.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Stephen, great post. I love Robert B Parker's character descriptions too. Some writers just have the gift of saying so much in so few words.

  12. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Lisa – see, you've got some nice, creative solutions there. The friendship bracelet tells me something about the character – makes me want to know more. Who's the friend? Why this friend in particular? And the scar of course creates interest, along with the character's desire to hide it. That's good stuff.

    Gar – exactly. The girls have all the power at the dance club. Guys are so often left feeling degraded. Then, of course, most of the time the guys deserve it. I mean, you can't expect to meet the love of your life at one of these clubs – the MO is usually just about getting laid. I'm sure you were there just to dance, though. Because you're not one of "those" guys, Gar. You were the ONE guy there who just wanted to dance. We'll go with that story.

    lil – Ever-so effective, yes.

    Zoe – I've only read a couple Parker books and it was a while ago – I'll have to get back into them.

  13. Susan Shea

    I snorted iced tea out my nose at "She had two eyes, a nose and a mouth that opened when she spoke." Thanks a lot!

    Thanks for the reminder to go back and reread some Mosely. Beautiful writing, tasty plots, and the only homicidal maniac I ever liked.

  14. Timothy Hallinan

    Great post about one of the hardest things in writing. The master for me, as far as the last 20-25 years is concerned, was Ross Thomas. He not only described faces you could see, faces that didn't look like other described faces, but the faces were usually the ones the characters had earned. Wish I were at home — I'd key one or two in. But I'm not; I'm in a coffee house avoiding writing because suddenly I realize I haven't really described much of anyone.

    Thanks, Stephen. Another anxiety.

  15. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Susan – and I sat right next to him at the Festival of Books last year and didn't know who he was. Embarrassing. Now I'm going to search him out to tell him how much I love his work.

    Tim – you're welcome. Now we have yet another thing in common.

  16. David Corbett


    Charles Baxter in his The Art of Subtext spends a whole chapter on the declining craft of description, titled "Loss of Face." Young writers, it seems, have little use for this element of craft. Too bad.

    Another book I cherish is The Describer's Dictionary, not for the useful words, but the examples, like this one from DeLillo's WHITE NOISE:

    Winnie was barely into her thirties but she had a sane and practiced eye for the half-concealed disasters that constitute a life. A narrow face partly hidden by wispy brown ringlets, eyes bright and excited. She had the beaky and hollow-boned look of a great wading creature. Small prim mouth. A smile that was permanently in conflict with some inner stricture against the seductiveness of humor.

    So much to learn.

  17. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    David – "A smile that was permanently in conflict with some inner stricture against the seductiveness of humor." A brilliant line. I love these little discoveries.
    Geez, what are the odds – Baxter's chapter is called "Loss of Face" and my blog is called "I Like Your Face," and we're talking about the same thing. His book sounds like a must-read.

  18. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    To those of us without rhythm, Alex, it is in fact akin to rocket science, just short of brain surgery.

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