idea_have_write_downBWAuthors use varying degrees of physical description for their characters. Look at ten books and they’ll all handle character descriptions differently. It seems that in days gone by, it was typical to be very detailed. These days many authors opt for minimal descriptions, preferring to leave more to the reader’s imagination. Maybe it’s because we’re inundated with characters in TV shows, movies, video games, Internet, and so on, Maybe we can more readily build a picture in our mind of a sloppily-dressing detective, a handsome rock star, a stately queen, a satiric talk-show host, or a perfectly primped soap star.

…while I’m reading, the character is mine, so I create my own picture in my mind.

My preference is for minimal descriptions. It’s always interesting when a book I’ve read is made into a movie and the characters are nothing like I imagined (and even more amazing when they are similar to what I imagined). But while I’m reading, the character is mine, so I create my own picture in my mind. Here are a few tips for handling character descriptions.

For minimalistic character descriptions, give only basic details early in the book so your reader has something to start with. For example, my monk is tall and dark haired with a tonsure. His eyes are deep set and dark. That’s about all I offer in the early pages.

After that consider including only details that add value to your story:

  • If Aiden’s poor eyesight is important later in the story, you might want to mention his eyeglasses.
  • If Erin’s hearing disability is important, you might want to mention her hearing aids, or the fact that she always leans in and tilts her head to listen.
  • If Carlene is a “goth girl” and it’s important that you want to convey her traits or attitudes, you could mention piercings, tattoos, nail polish, or hair color.
  • If Joe, the homeless man, features in your story, you might mention something like unkempt long hair, a raggedy coat, or worn work boots with wool socks poking out through holes in the toes.
  • Is Maybelle a gawky high school nerd? Then as your story progresses, build on details like knee-high socks, button-up sweaters, horn-rimmed glasses, or the fact that she braids her hair the same way every day. Does she bring a tuna sandwich for lunch every day in her old-fashioned leather book bag? Can she always be found in the library or at a science club meeting?

Consider dialog to convey the necessary details rather than straight narrative:

“Did you see that sweater?”
“I know. Her grandmother made it for her. It’s the same one she wore last winter.”
“I don’t understand why she wears it so often.”
“I heard her complain that Miss Bookish never turns up the heat in the library.”

Details help the reader imagine how you want your character to look and act

Consider using actions to convey details:

  • constantly running fingers through long dark hair
  • twisted the diamond stud in his right ear
  • picking at black nail polish
  • adjusting black horn-rimmed glasses
  • blatantly flicking his cuffs and checking his Rolex watch
  • nervously fingering mole on her left cheekbone

Assume your readers are intelligent and imaginative. Don’t waste their time. Get on with the story. Don’t spoon-feed them. The important thing is to include what’s important pull your reader through the story. Sprinkle the details as you need them to assist in character and plot development. Don’t spend an entire page or two describing your character. Ho hum!

Write away! Look at your character descriptions and make sure you have a good balance of character description.

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2 thoughts on “Describing characters: When is enough enough?

    1. Agreed! I much prefer to use my own imagination. I like that I can build on my image as the story progresses and learn as I need the details.
      Thanks for visiting and taking a moment to comment. Most appreciated!

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