Should you describe your main characters?

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The first rule of write club is that you don’t talk about write club. Except we do, often, especially with other writers. Most writers want to improve their craft and share what they’ve learnt. This desire to share ideas and experience on the art of writing – whether through books, courses, writing groups, blogs and so on – is a wonderful thing. It shows that writers see each other not as competitors, but as fellow travellers. Comrades in arms. Drinking buddies. I’ve learned, and continue to learn, so much through the kindness of fellow writers, but this also leads to problems.

Writing, like all art, is subjective. You only have to look at the wide variation of reviews for what are considered our literary masterpieces to understand that. We all have different perspectives on what constitutes a good story, or a well-written story. A few months ago, on the school run, a parent asked me about my book. “Is it full of dialogue?” they asked, “because I hate that. I love a book where you can get lost in long descriptive passages, chock full of detail so you end up feeling like you are there.”

I’m not a great fan of long, drawn out descriptive passages. For me, rather than getting immersed into the story through detailed description, I find myself bored because I want to know what happens next. Any of you who have read my book, Second Chance, will know that I write in a style I would want to read. When I write description, I do so sparingly, giving enough detail to keep the reader grounded in the world I created, but leaving plenty of opportunity for them to fill in the gaps. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious stylistic decision, more a case of striking out the passages that bored me during the editing phase.

Except for one area: character description.

I very consciously decided not to describe my main characters. This was for two reasons. The first was that although I write in the 3rd person, each chapter is taken from a single character’s perspective and unless the character was particularly narcissistic, it would be unusual for them to describe themselves in detail. Even when my main characters, initially separate, end up coming in contact with each other, I still refuse to give much description because by that point the reader would have formed a mental picture of these people and any difference between my description and the image in their head will bring them out of the story (although I did see this technique used to excellent effect by Ian M Banks when he revealed halfway through one of his novels that the lead character was a humanoid badger).

The second reason I chose not to describe my characters in detail is all about making them accessible to the widest possible audience. Because the appearance of my characters has no relevance to the overall story, I didn’t want impose my view of what they look like on the reader. For me, it is the character’s actions and behaviours that should shape a reader’s mental image, not a descriptive passage.

But I know this is not to everyone’s taste. I’ve had one review which specifically wishes the main characters were described more. At the same time I’ve had somebody describe one of my characters in great detail to my face, despite the fact the only part of their body I described was greying hair. I just nodded and smiled.

What about you? Where do you stand on descriptive passages in books and the description of main characters in particular? As a reader do you prefer to be told what your characters look like or build the picture yourself? If you write, are do you thrill in sharing your mind’s image with the reader or do you prefer your readers to fill the gaps themselves? I’d love to hear from you.

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30 thoughts on “Should you describe your main characters?

  1. As an author, I think it’s good to have a nice balance. One doesn’t exclude the other. Sometimes I find it’s necessary to be descriptive and sometimes, I prefer to let the reader draw their own conclusions, depending on where the story is at in the book 🙂

  2. I tend to describe them. Even though I don’t always do it directly. I also write in third person limited, so one character might mention another character’s attributes, his crystal blue eyes and dark hair. Another way is through words of action, “He leaned back and propped his boot across his knee.” With my transsexual entertainer, I went into the details of her dressing for a performance. So, yeah, they do get described but I try not to have it appear to be a grocery list of descriptiveness.

    • Ah, the grocery list of descriptiveness. One of my pet hates. I like the use of action to describe a character. Helps provide the right information without unnecessarily slowing down the pace. 🙂

    • Thanks for this, Eric. What’s interesting for me is that people rarely look at a person without making judgements (for example, whether they find the person attractive or unattractive, trustworthy or suspicious) and this varies from person to person. Do you ever describe the same character from these different perspectives?

      • Individual perceptions are always different. I lov that one char will describe the protag differently than others. Marsha loves John, he can do no wrong. Steve hates John for Marsha’s love, John is a bumbling idiot how could she love him. You get the picture. Triangles.

  3. Like you, I’m not big on long descriptive passages. But I definitely like to be grounded in a scene, so some description is needed. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

    I do like knowing what the characters look like, but I don’t require much. One or two details. But I don’t care for the standing in front of a mirror thing. That’s kind of the easy way out. Or saying the guy looked like Tom Cruise or something like that.

  4. I tend to build up the description, It can jar stopping narrative to describe what somebody looks like, but I will ultimately give a description piece by piece.

    I started reading Second Chance a couple of days ago and I must say I like the tone and style so far.

    • That’s interesting. I once got pulled up by a beta reader for adding in a descriptive element in the last third of my book which confused them as they had already decided what the character looked like. Has that ever tripped you up at all?
      Thanks for the kind words on Second Chance. I hope you continue to enjoy the story. 🙂

      • I think I tend to do it early-ish, first third, but not immediately. I’m working on a horror-comedy novelette at the moment (I expect it to be about 20-30,000 words long) and I never mentioned that one of the characters was very tall until about 9000 words in.

      • Does it have an impact on the plot or is it purely to add colour. If the latter I wouldn’t worry. If the former, you might want to think about mentioning it earlier (unless it’s the first time the character has been introduced).

  5. Great and thoughtful post, Dylan and helpful comments too. As a new novelist I’m still coming to terms with this but, instinctively I’m with you on sparse description (of both place and people) and allowing the reader to create there own pictures. I read a Rachel Cusk once where she started the book with half a dozen pages describing a torrential storm starting with a single raindrop. Did my head in (I was still at the stage ‘mastermind’ book reading – I’ve started so I’ll finish – I’ve gone beyond that). If I have a failing it’s when I have a lot of characters so having to distinguish between them. That and making sure the names are sufficiently different (one beta reader pointed out I had a Martin, a Martha, a Melvin, a Mike and a Michael. I hadn’t noticed!)

    • I love that phrase, mastermind book reading 🙂 I read somewhere that you should try to ensure each of your character names start with a different letter. It’s not always possible but it’s a good rule to try and follow.
      There are some writers who deliver long descriptive passages that are a joy to read. I find the ones that do this best usually manage this by revealing a character’s thoughts and motivation through their description of what they are seeing. Fashion, too, plays a role. Often the focus these days is on what’s marketable – easy writing style; less description, more action – and I often wonder if Dickens or Tolstoy would ever get published if they’d been around today.

  6. I am somewhere in between. I like my reader to have a basic idea but not so much that I take away their experience of crafting the character’s image in their mind. I’ve often been shocked to discover that a character I was reading about all of sudden had blond hair when I had pictured them as a brunette. To me, it’s a fine line. That perfect sweet spot of enough info to get them started, then leave it to them to fill in the blanks. I also enjoy this as a reader, which is probably why I choose to write this way.

    • I think it’s OK to shock readers with a little piece of description if it is intended and integral to the story. The problem comes, as you say, when it knocks the reader out of the world they’ve created in their mind.
      Thanks so much for dropping by.

  7. Great post, and has provoked plenty of comment – nice one! I tend to give two or three telling details, rather than describe someone from head-to-toe. Also, it can be more powerful to describe a character through the eyes of another character, which overlays bias/prejudices etc – more interesting. What a character does is far more interesting than what they look like, unless what they look like has in some way influenced their actions.

    As a rule, I’m against great long passages of description, but one long character description is actually one of my favourite openings to a novel: The beautiful picture of Farmer Gabriel Oak at the beginning of Far From the Madding Crowd. Worth checking out before you rule out describing characters!

    • I didn’t use different perspectives to describe a character in Second Chance but I did use that technique a couple of times to describe a location. I have no idea if anyone spotted it, though 🙂
      Thanks for the tip. It’s been many years since I read Far From the Madding Crowd so I’ll have to look it up (I was more into Star Wars at the time so my memories of the book are vague).

  8. Like you, I’d much rather have the reader project their own image onto the characters, thus enriching them with far more qualities than I ever intended to! In my view, this is an effective way of allowing people to invest in the story.

  9. I have a lot of characters to juggle, and switch PoVs pretty frequently, so sometimes a name isn’t enough. In addition, character appearance and origin mean a lot in my books in regard to how other characters react to them, so I do try to highlight those relevant traits. However, I don’t have characters describe themselves unless they’re reflecting on something someone just pointed out — say, a scar, in which case they might recall how they got it. And after the initial description, I don’t re-describe them much except when they notice things about each other, or have to pick each other out of a scene.

    I have very strong images of them in my head (to the point that I make them in games’ character creators all the time) but I know that a reader will never get exactly the image that I have. So as long as they’re in the ballpark regarding coloration, build and relative height, I’m happy.

    • Thanks for your detailed and interesting response. Using a character’s reaction to describe another character is a great way of giving detail while moving the story forward. It’s interesting what you say about your image of your characters. It’s not for nothing that publishing your book is often described as allowing your children out into the world. On the one hand you feel protective of your work but at the same time you have to let others have their own interpretation of what you’ve created.

      • Indeed. I’ve found it’s often best to let the characters measure themselves against each other, because it gives some insight into how they interact with friends and foes. I recently edited a scene between two women — they’re both short, but one is shorter than the other and it really ticks her off, how she perceives this taller woman to be using that imbalance to her advantage. This is symptomatic of their relationship though, because we also see her having no problems with the much taller men.

        So in essence I’ve tried to evoke the mood and reality of a character more than their appearance, while still dropping in some visual details.

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