Character Descriptions: Necessary Visual or Waste of Words?

This blog was prompted by my last two book reviews.  Both Sapphire & Lotus: Dragon Kin and Valley of Embers lacked something I find to be one of the most useful visuals in reading: character descriptions.  In response, I’ll be blogging on my own preference in character descriptions, in both writing and reading.

Passive Descriptions:

As a writer, I like to describe at least one attribute as soon as I introduce a character, and most of the time I chose to write it from the perspective of another character.  Sometimes it’s as simple as hair/eye/skin color, but just describing this can be a bit generic – She had green eyes, brown hair, and tanned skin.  Green/brown/tanned are vague terms and can convey a plethora of different visuals.  Something even a bit more specific – Her green eyes remind me of moss in the woods – can not only describe one character, but lead into how another character feels/relates to the character being described.

A description does not necessarily have to be of the character either – hair color, skin color, and eye color are a start, but not always applicable (especially for that hooded figure in the corner of the tavern).  Height and build are secondary, and can be referenced from a ‘comparative’ standpoint, in which one character ‘sizes up’ another, but again may not always be applicable.  Instead, I sometimes focus on what the character is wearing first, particularly if the character wears the accessory or clothing throughout the story.  The key here is to make sure the item is important to the character – perhaps a girl wears a necklace her father gave her before he died in a war, or a basketball fan is obsessed with his local team and always wears their colors, or a character needs to have a certain tool on hand to complete her job, or even survive (such as a medical device).  Scars and tattoos are another option, and tend to have stories in of themselves.

Active Descriptions:

The above examples are more ‘passive’ character descriptions, but descriptions can also be active.  A firm handshake can portray strength or confidence, or a person’s quick reaction to the situation they’re in will demonstrate attentiveness or possibly wariness/anxiety.  An alcoholic will not only have a bottle in hand but alcohol on his breath when he talks, a character suffering OCD will start her morning differently than her spouse, and a high school star athlete may (or may not!) beat the new student in a race.  I prefer writing active descriptions when characters have a certain, specific profession, and are particularly important for main characters whose active descriptions develop over the course of the novel.

How detailed?

There’s also the question of how much description, or the level of detail, is necessary to get the proper visual across.  One thing I learned when I started writing was, no matter how much detail you put into your character description, each one of your readers is going to visualize the character differently (source here).  While I love reading character descriptions, I do think this is true.  Which then begs the questions – why even describe characters, and how much detail do you really need?

When you meet a person for the first time, or even notice a stranger on the street, the first things that register are pretty much the equivalent to basic character descriptions.  They form the base of identification, and within milliseconds prepare us for interaction (even if we just pass the person by).  While we certainly don’t know everything about someone based on the most basic descriptions, we do begin to form an identity, a connection, we can interact with.  The character in the novel suddenly has traits we can visualize, which makes interaction much easier.  It’s ‘putting a face to the name’, if you will, and even if the face is different for each person reading, it makes ‘interacting’ with the character (reading the story) much easier.

As for the level of detail, it’s up to the writer, but I will advise:  Focus on the character traits that individualize the character from others.  You could have a group of teenage girls who attend the same private school with a strict dress code, and they could all be the same race/family and thus have similar physical features.  But each one is going to be different somehow – glasses or contacts, intelligence, sociability, food allergies, music preference, etc. Focus your descriptions on these more ‘detailed’ attributes, and less on the basic descriptions that make them all the same, and it’s also best if the details are relevant to the story in a way.

Description Frequency:

My last point, the frequency of character descriptions, is something I learned when reading the feedback form my beta readers.  My first beta reader suggested more frequent descriptions of my characters, which I included in my subsequent submissions to other beta readers.  My second, third, and fourth beta reader mentioned nothing about character descriptions, but my fifth one also made the comment of wanting more descriptions throughout the novel!  Character descriptions are kind of easy for a writer to lose sight of (after all, we know exactly what they look like), but can be necessary in longer stories where characters are driving the plot.

My advice is, only add enough ‘frequency’ of description as you, the writer, want to allow.  While it shouldn’t be necessary to describe your characters every single chapter, nor should the flow be interrupted with descriptions, a ‘gentle reminder’ that your main character has black hair and a snake tattoo doesn’t hurt either, preferably in a scene where the hair or tattoo is relevant (such as a haircut, or a surgeon having to cut across the tattoo).  Stories can get long and complicated, and the reader can lose track of even the basic descriptions (particularly when they put the book down for a week or so), so the longer the story, the more frequent you may want character descriptions.

Descriptions – even necessary, or waste of space?

Of course, all of this is moot when you don’t even write descriptions of your characters.  Which, as I’ve come across twice now, isn’t unheard of in novels.  When this happens, I usually I just substitute the best visual I can for the character based on what I am given (male or female, young or old, strong or meek personality, etc.).

For me, when reading, the character’s description (or lack of) is often the first thing I latch on to.  It’s that first step towards relating the reader and the character, and while it doesn’t have to be pages of details, something is always better than nothing.  Even the basic, most passive descriptions (hair/skin/eyes) are enough to portray enough to visualize the character, to ‘get to know them’ if even at a superficial level.  In my opinion, it shouldn’t be up to the reader to fill in these blanks.


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