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Describing your Characters
When it comes to characters, we writers have a certain goal: to bring these people to life in the readers' imaginations. But for this to work, two things need to happen.
1) The character needs personality.
2) The readers need to be able to visualize the character as they read.
The first is achieved through characterization, while the second is traditionally thought to be achieved through physical description. What I’d like to discuss in this journal entry, however, is how physical description also needs to contribute to a character’s personality, and how it’s actually characterization, more than anything, that helps the readers visualize a character.
Take a look at the following example.
1) When I entered Mr. Jed's office, he stood and smiled at me. He had a big nose and short, brown hair. He wore a dark suit. I shook his hand.
What do you know about Mr. Jed from this brief scene? The physical details I’ve given say that he has a fat nose and short, brown hair. He’s also wearing a dark suit. You can visualize him well enough, but can you tell me anything about his personality from these details, something about his life or past? I suppose you could gather he’s a businessman considering the suit and setting, but what does his fat nose say? His brown hair?
Although these details provide an image, what they don’t do is tell a story. The really effective details do, and that’s what you need to strive for. With that in mind, let’s rewrite this scene with useful, story-telling details.
2) When I entered Mr. Jed's office, he stood and smiled at me. He wore a suit with a crisp tie and glinting cufflinks. I shook his hand. The knuckles were rough, callused, and his grip crushed my hand.
Alright, now what can you tell me about Mr. Jed? Well, we can now see that he's a finely-dressed businessman with that crisp tie and glinting cufflinks, not just a man in a dark suit; someone with perhaps a tad more refined taste than his previous incarnation. And now what about his rough, callused knuckles? Are they the sign of a violent past, or a violent present? His crushing grip sure is intimidating.
You should now have a much more complete and compelling image of Mr. Jed living in your imagination. The key, once again, are details that tell a story. As for details that don’t (for example, Mr. Jed’s fat nose and short, brown hair), I find them more often than not worth cutting. They’re usually checklist details, anyway: useless details included to satisfy some imaginary description quota.
Now that you've seen the difference between these two types of description, I'm going to give you an easy tip to follow that will lead you to the story-telling variety.
Not just a dark suit but one with a crisp tie and glinting cuff links. Not just a handshake, but the feeling of callused knuckles. When you get specific as in the above example, the details will begin to say something about your character (whether you want them to or not), because specificity forces you into characterization. For example, to hear that Lucas wears cologne won't tell you much about him other than the fact he cares how he smells. But how do your perceptions change when you hear it's Acqua Di Gio he wears? Or what if it's a bottle of Axe: Dark Temptation? We humans are assumptive creatures, and we jump on any and every clue to make those assumptions. And hey, if the fish are biting....
But please, do try to be purposeful with your specificity. In other words, avoid randomly including the details if they don’t reflect the desired image. Remember, you’re adding these descriptions to be useful for characterization. If you just throw them in willy-nilly, your prose, first, could get fat and sluggish from excessive details that are really just a more colorful variety of checklist details; and second, the image you want for your character could be lost in a jumbled mess of mixed signals.
I’d like to point out that in the previous paragraph I kept referring to the “image” you’re crafting. I used this term because the initial image of a character (often based on appearance) doesn’t always reflect the character’s personality. As such, although you’ll usually use details to reinforce personality, you can also use details to build up a false image to be broken later (or left intact as a contradictory image). Just be aware of the image you’re building and build it with purpose.
Deciding what details are appropriate:
To figure out the details appropriate for your character, you should sit down and really think about that character. Maybe go fill out a character sheet: dA has a bunch of them (but avoid transferring checklist details into your story, those useless images like Mr. Jed's "fat nose" and "short, brown hair"). When you have a grasp of your character's life and personality, try and imagine how those things could be reflected in her appearance or demeanor.
But hey, let’s say your character’s clothes and appearance really aren’t important to who she is. Let’s say she’s actually pretty average. What should you do? Well, I’d argue that if you really tried, you could find something to write down. But there’s another option, too: just don’t describe her much.
I’d like to remove an illusion for you. Character descriptions aren’t necessary. Characterization is necessary, but stories can get by and even flourish with very little character description.
My favorite example of an author who understands this is Orson Scott Card. If you read any of his books, you'll quickly realize that he spends little to no time describing his characters (you're often only given age, gender, and ethnicity to go off of, if even that), but his characters still come to life. This is due to potent and plentiful characterization, particularly in his dialogue and his narrators' internalized thoughts. We can already picture the characters, you see, on an intimate level, so we don't necessarily need all those visual details. If you want to see this in action, I recommend reading Card's Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel Ender's Game.
Whether you choose to be heavy or light on character descriptions is really a stylistic choice. I personally align more with Card and prefer less; there’s an argument that goes: the more you describe a character, the more you tear down the image already formed in the reader’s mind, an image the reader quite liked, actually; and I believe it. Particularly with faces. I hate it when I’m told too much about a character’s face (though there are always exceptions). That being said, I’m not a complete supporter of extremes either. Although Card is one of my favorite authors, I’d say he takes his minimalism too far at times. I think Kazuo Ishiguro hits it right on the money, though, in his novel Never Let Me Go (if you care enough about my opinion to check it out).
But once again, to each his own. There is no universal answer, just varying responses to varying styles and situations. What I really want is for you to keep in mind the storytelling details when you want to describe, and if you really don’t think extensive description complements the moment, remember that descriptions aren’t necessary. You don’t have to tell us that Lisa is a brunette with hazel eyes and high cheekbones. You don’t need to force yourself into a checklist of details, giving us her hair color, eye color, height, weight, bust, yada yada. The fault is often in the desire to recreate in words the exact image you hold in mind. This is an honorable goal, but an unattainable one. You're working through an imperfect form, writing, and the best you can often do is portray the personality accurately. Sensually, you'll have to leave a lot of it up to the readers' own interpretations. All you can do is leave suggestions
Here's a phrase to live by in regards of description, whether it be for characters, settings, or what have you: It's not how much you describe, it's what you choose to describe. After all, you could describe every hair on your character's head, every pimple, if you wanted to. But who would want to read that? So you need to just give the readers choice details that act as a framework of both sensual and character perceptions, and then let them do the rest. If you have any doubts about a detail, simply ask yourself what that detail says about your character. If it says nothing or says something you don't like, it’s time to seriously consider scrapping it.