Occasionally, on Twitter or on one online forum or another, I’ll see writers discussing character descriptions. As a reader, I read plenty of them, too.
The discussions are usually about how much to describe characters. Should I tell the reader what color her eyes are? What color his hair is, how it curls up a bit at the ends, that it’s shoulder length, how it blows in the soft breeze with a curl falling almost but not quite across one eye? Should I tell them how much my badass ex-special-forces mercenary weighs, that it’s pure muscle and hardly any body fat, how tall he is? He’s really tall? Maybe how big around his biceps are… do I use inches, centimeters, or what? Should I tell them how big the female lead’s boobs are? Like, cup size? I’m pretty sure I should.
Oh, no. No, no, no. Please no.
Look, there’s a time and a place for these things. And a lot of descriptions are described for the wrong reasons. As writers, we tend to have an idea of what our characters look like. The more often we use the character, the stronger that idea is. And it’s tempting to want to pass that full vision on to the reader. Hey, did I tell you that Protagonist X has really hairy forearms? I always imagined him with really hairy forearms. But, alas, the reader doesn’t care that much.
Probably because the reader is building his or her own picture of the characters.
There are other reasons characters are over-described, other than the eagerness of the writer to transmit an imaginary photograph from his head to yours. Some of us, especially in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, have played role-playing games before, where you describe your character on a sheet of paper — height, weight, typical clothing, distinguishing marks such as scars and tattoos, hair and eye color, and so forth. The ‘character sheet’ is also a writing exercise that crops up from time to time in workshops and classrooms. Character sheets are not a bad thing. But most of what’s on that sheet, in my minimalist-friendly opinion, is for the writer, not the reader. Some of those details might crop up in the progress of the story. It suddenly becomes relevant that Protagonist Y is a tiny woman, not even five feet tall and elfin-thin, because that’s what allows her to shimmy under a low-slung sportscar where the baddies pursuing her would never think a person could hide. Maybe her cup size does matter — if you’re writing erotica. Ditto for the dimensions of Protagonist Z’s schlong. Erotica, goes with the territory. Much of any genre else, you just look like a big fat sexist. Maybe a couple of characters meet via blind date or similar, and a couple of details are the recognition key — “Look for a tall guy with a big afro wearing Western boots with Cuban heels and a vintage white Megadeth concert tee from the late 1980s. I’m pretty distinctive.”
There’s a time and a place for physical description, and in my opinion it’s mostly in the head of the author, outside of some pretty unusual circumstances.
So why do I write characters this way? Thinking of stories I’ve recently worked on, for example, the physically describing details I attached to one character were that his jeans were worn and soft and old, torn, revealing a single thin and bony knee. That’s it for him. He’s a he, his jeans are old, and one of his knees is knobby. And this was a significant character, not a one-scene background throwaway.
My theory goes like this: most of the picture a reader forms of a character is based on what happens in the story. Worn jeans, thin bony knee, some moderately whiny dialogue, a southwestern desert setting, the fact that he and she (the other primary character, the protagonist) drive out of the city where they work writing ad copy… all these circumstances attach to things in the mind of the reader. They attach to templates — southwestern. City folks visiting a rural setting. Might be a bit awkward, a bit sightsee-y. Writers — maybe a bit casual, maybe a little unconventional. Ad copy isn’t the most exciting job ever, doesn’t sound too highly paid — now we have the reader’s vision of class influence on appearance. She cuts a few Spanish words in with her dialogue, he doesn’t. The reader who notices this has a new bit to add as to their appearances. I don’t tell them how — everyone adds their own impression. Maybe for some it influences their ideas about how these two look, maybe for some it influences how they act, how they move, stand, speak, go about their regular lives; in real life, this tells you far more about a person than just physical description, and it’s far more nebulous. Unless you’re Sherlock Holmes, you’re influenced in your impression of a person far more by cues other than things like height, weight, hairstyle, and so on, and you don’t know what specific things produced those impressions. I do use the odd physical characteristic, but I tend not to be precise. I think precision burdens the reader. When I read, I don’t care that some guy is six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds, and has seven percent body fat. When I write, that guy is “Protagonist A stood up; he had shoulders like a bull. The pickpocket cowered, dwarfed.” And that’s how I like to read, too. I tend to skim over long descriptions and move on to what the characters do, how they speak to each other, what their interior monologues are like. That tells me way more about the character.
What I find when I read books with characters that stay with me, is that they tend to be described similarly. Bare sketches of physical detail that are more about the characters themselves than their physical appearances. The action and dialogue tell you about the character. Take Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example.Paul Atreides is described on the first page by his age, fifteen, and by his mother and Reverend Mother Mohiam discussing the fact that he’s small for his age. That’s all we get. The Reverend Mother is “a bulky female shape” with eyes that are “bird-bright ovals” and “glittering jewels”. Her hair is “like matted spiderwebs”.
Which brings in another aspect of describing a character: your characters are part of the setting, and your setting delivers the feel of the story to the reader. Reverent Mother is spooky. That spiderweb hair — is it white, gray, straight, curled, really long, slightly long? We don’t know. We don’t care. She’s creepy and Paul is creeped out by her and her presence. What color are “bird-bright ovals?” What kind of “glittering jewels?” So many times we’re tempted to make the glittering jewels tell what color those eyes are. Well, do we care? Eye color doesn’t matter much until later in Dune, and then everyone’s eyes are spiced-out blue. So we don’t care, Herbert doesn’t care, what color the eyes are until it matters. Right now, at the open of the story, Paul is unsettled by those piercing eyes, and so we get two descriptions of them that tell us nothing about how they look and everything about how they make Paul feel.
And feelings are way, WAY, WAY more important to your story than how much so-and-so weighs or what color what’s-her-name’s hair is.