Monday, November 19, 2012

How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Characters?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

At some point in your story, you'll have to decide how much to include about the physical description of a character. You don't want to describe your characters to death, but you also want to describe them so readers can get an idea of what they look like. How much is too much and how little is too little?

This is one of those things that's really up to the author. I dislike a lot of description, and I admit, I skim a passage when it's clear it's a big "this is what stuff looks like" paragraph. Even description about a character. I'm much more interested in who they are and what they'll do than what they look like.

Because of my personal feelings, I tend to be sparse when I write my own character descriptions. In fact, if I didn't know there are folks out there who love knowing what someone looks like, I'd probably skip them altogether.

But that's just me, and my way may not be your way. So, quick answers:

How much is too much?

If it bogs down the story, it's too much.

How much it too little?

If there's no sense of who the person is, it's too little.

How important is it to describe them?

Some authors never do. If it's important to you, do it. If not, don't. 

I think any description, be it about a character or a place, has the potential to bog down a story because description stops the action. So we need to be careful about how we slip it in and how much we use.

My own rule of thumb is, the more details you add, the more you need to keep it in your point of view (POV). Let them judge what they're seeing so the details do more than just describe. They also characterize and do some world building at the same time.

Example One:  
The man was tall, six feet six inches, with broad shoulders. He had short blond hair and brown eyes, and wore a olive green double-breasted suit.
-yawn-

This, I'd skim. It tells me details, but so what? Unless this is the exact description of the killer, it does nothing to move the story along.This tells me nothing about who this guy is or who the person looking at him is.

Try the same details in a solid POV.

Example Two:  
He was tall, like, basketball tall, with shoulders wide enough to block any jump shot. But no star athlete would wear that haircut, even a blond one. His brown eyes sparkled with more intelligence that you'd think at first glance, as if he knew what he looked like in that too-fancy-for-just-lunch olive suit. And come on, double breasted? In this neighborhood? Please.

Here we learn just as much about who the POV is as we do what the guy looks like. The POV knows sports, or at least basketball, they don't think too highly of folks who are dressed a certain way in that area, suggesting some type of prejudice. This is a person who sees things and immediately judges them. But they're also perceptive, since they noticed the subtleties of the eye sparkle.

(More on describing your first-person protagonist here)

You don't have to flesh it out as long as this, though. You can sum up a quick description in a way that still feels like your POV.

Example Three:  
The man stood out. Six foot six, olive suit, blond hair, brown eyes, broad shoulders. He was worth keeping an eye on.

Much shorter, and with a tone that suggests whoever is keeping an eye on him might have some police or military background. The details are taken in quickly, but what comes before and after those details is judgment about them. That's turns this from bland to interesting.

Of course, you can also describe without giving away too many details.

Example Four:  
He was the kind of guy who belonged on the cover of a romance novel.

I didn't give one detail of actual description, but I bet every one of you pictured something specific. Very likely the broad-chested, well-muscled guy with long flowing hair, either blond or black. (Fabio, anyone?) This image has become a cliche, and you can use that cultural knowledge to fill in the blanks.

(More on making the most of your descriptions here)

When describing characters, you don't have to put in more (or less) than you feel the story needs. What's more important is what those details bring to the page than what they are.

How much do you describe? Do you like knowing what a character looking like? Why or why not?


Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a monthly contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound
 

46 comments:

  1. For years (when I was a teen, that is) I thought it was a requirement to have a chapter devoted to description, because I read Little Women. I'm just not that good at it, so I used to agonize over it. Oops! So glad it's not really writing law. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is great, of course. Like Su, as a teen I thought pages of description were necessary. I remember writing my first novel--if you can call it that--and describing everything the way Dickens did in the books I was reading. Needless to say, I got too bored to finish it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is just the sort of thing I needed to read. I'm starting on a new MS at the moment and I've always struggled with how best to use descriptions, particularly of characters.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Examples 2 and 3 are the kinds I like reading. #2 is kind of long, but it's in the narrator's voice so it moves the novel along. And #3 is short and sweet, doesn't interrupt the flow and still gives the reader a good sense of what the character looks like. Great examples, Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Su: I did the same thing with setting description because I read fantasy, and they always went into great detail with the worlds. So glad it wasn't true there, either ;)

    Tracey: You know you're in trouble when you bore yourself, LOL.

    Paul: I'm glad it helped. Good luck with the new MS.

    Laura: Thanks! I'm a fan of shorter myself.

    ReplyDelete
  6. As always, so timely! My current goal in revising is to find a way to make it clear my male protag is super dreamy without turning him into Edward Cullen. *g*

    (Actually, descriptions of places are what I have the hardest time with. I'm not a visual person *at all* -- I'll have to meet someone four or five times before noticing her hair color, and I'll *never* notice eye color unless it's pointed out to me -- so I don't have much mental image of where things are happening. My more serious goal is do enough scene setting that it no longer reads like every scene happens in a void or a plain white room with no furniture...)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great eamples of how to do it wrong and right. I too tend to skim too much description.

    ReplyDelete
  8. It depends on the story and the setting. Sometimes you need a lot of physical description, sometimes nothing, like Kafka and Joseph K >:)

    Cold As Heaven

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is another awesome, and timely, post. I am currently polishing my first manuscript and I've noticed I'm somewhat sparse with descriptions of both characters and places. I'm making sure I have enough, but I can't stand getting bogged down in unnecessary details when I read a book and in reflects in my own writing.

    Thanks!
    Tracey

    ReplyDelete
  10. Funny story -- my Haunted series has a 13-year-old boy at the first-person narrator. One of my male writing friends had commented that he hates reading "boy books" where the author is obviously a middle-aged woman. (Don't let my name fool you, I'm female.) I asked him to look over the manuscript, to see if I'd made mistakes. He suggested taking out most of the description of other characters, even the woman the narrator has a crush on. He said a boy wouldn't be analyzing her long, curly dark hair, etc. -- it would be more of a visceral reaction, like a punch to the gut. So I did that.

    In the third book, The Knight in the Shadows, the beautiful woman is in a Halloween costume and there is finally a brief mention of her curly black hair. My husband read the book and said-- wait, but she's a redhead! I had to show him that the earlier books included no physical details. He had pictured her as he thought she should be, based on the narrator's reaction.

    Chris Eboch
    Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, The Riverboat Phantom and The Knight in the Shadows
    Read the first chapters: http://www.chriseboch.com

    ReplyDelete
  11. I prefer to keep my descriptions vague so readers can fill them in with their own visions. And good point about making sure they're in the POV of the character doing the describing. A cop will notice things one way, a socialite another.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

    ReplyDelete
  12. My descriptions tend to start off like example 1: a bland, straightforward listing of facts. In one story, I had a few paragraphs where one character completely assessed the other's clothing. Granted her background permitted that sort of analysis, but it didn't fit the situation. So I rewrote it, used about half of it, and what I did keep was much like example 2.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Great tips!

    That's how I try to do the description. It's actually more about how something impacts the character than just repeating what they are seeing.

    :-)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Anybody read the Babysitters Club Books growing up? Remember how they had a whole chapter at the beginning of every single book describing each of the girls? How many people skipped that chapter? *raises hand

    ReplyDelete
  15. Ooh! I loved your examples. You're right. Its all in the execution. Thanks for the helpful post!
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

    ReplyDelete
  16. Yeah, after a book or two I always skipped that chapter in Babysitters Club.

    I did have complaints in my creative writing class that I wasn't describing my first-person narrator in a way anyone could picture. Mostly that's because he's a water sprite, though. The fact that he can't set around thinking `I'm a basically humanoid creature, but with a dorsal fin down my back, and more fins on my elbows and ankles' makes him a little hard to describe. I'll have to see if there's any way I can turn some of your examples and advice toward self-descriptions. :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. The amount of description also depends on the genre. A romance reader wants more description than a mystery reader does, for example.

    Also, read what is being written NOW in your genre, not what was written ten years ago, let alone a hundred years ago, to see how to do it. Narrative methods have changed drastically through the years.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have a first person POV with a troll. Sadly, some of my beta readers thought this meant she was green. Since she would never look in a mirror and describe herself to herself (gack!), the only thing I could do was work in a line about something turning her normally dark skin to a cafe au lait color.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Becky: What works for me is to describe the things that matter to the POV and help illustrate something important about the world. So then the description becomes part of the storytelling and just just "setting." For example, if I wanted to show that my city had a lot of soldiers and folks were scared of them, I'd have Nya spot soldiers and keep her head down, move to the other side of the street, show other people doing the same, etc. Right away the reader can see "soldiers = bad here." It makes deciding what derails to use a lot easier.

    Natalie: Thanks!

    Cold As Heaven: Yeppers.

    Tracey: Same here. I always have to go back and add some. I have a great crit partner who is wonderful with description and she makes sure I don't slack off. That world building technique I mentioned above to Becky can help with fleshing out details.

    Chris: That's so funny. We do get pictures in our heads. Great example of how the author can be "wrong" because the reader pictured something different. That would be a good argument for adding *some* details even if it's just a word here and there.

    Terry: POV is my favorite writing tool. If I have a problem with something, odds are a strong POV will fix it :)

    Jaleh: Nothing wrong with that :) That's what first drafts are for.

    Misha: Exactly ;)

    Sarah: I never did, but I would have been one of those people for sure.

    Raquel: Most welcome!

    Chicory: First person descriptions are really hard. Anything you say is going to sound weird. Who thinks "I brushed my long blond hair"? I've found comparisons really work well. My protag describes herself by looking at her younger sister and noting differences that fit the scene.

    Marilynn: Both are so true. There are still ranges, though. Fantasy is known for it's description, yet I tend to write sparse.

    Holly: Thanks!

    Suzi: Eek, I'd be one to think green. Blame World of Warcraft, LOL. You might think about getting something in right away to squash that assumption. That way readers know early on not to imagine what they might naturally assume. I did that by adding crocodiles right away to The Shifter to show it was a tropical setting, not a traditional fantasy medieval Europe setting.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Oh yes! great stuff here. And I love that describing OTHER characters can tell you about the MC, the person observing that character. Your examples are spot-on, and yes, they are more interesting to read when they are more than a flat run-down of hair and eye color, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Nice post and it SO depends on both the genre and POV. I tend to be slight in my physical descriptions because I want the writer to put in their own ideas of, what a wizard looks like, or a vampire (not sparkly I hope), what mom would wear, or the typical lawyer.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Great post and something I struggle with.
    In life when you see someone you instantly (I'm told it takes 2 seconds!) sum up a person you meet. Build, race, hair colour etc, perhaps smaller things like eye colour you might not notice at once. I feel each important character needs a line about them when they are first introduced so that the reader knows if they are old/young/ nice looking etc,etc but then as the plot unfolds more of their character (perhaps the way they spend hours preening etc) explains more about them. This can be hard to do without sounding like a police description.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Carol: One of my favorite aspects of POV is that you can filter everything through your protag's eyes and explain stuff naturally that you never could otherwise. Better still -- you can make them wrong and it all works! Because that's what they think. I love that part.

    Lori: It really does. A crit partner of mine writes mysteries, and she does so much more description than I do. But I know that's the norm for her genre, so I keep that in mind when I crit her stuff.

    Mary: It can be tough. I like to use them as world building opportunities when I can. Pack a lot of info into it. Takes some more thought but it's worth it.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I've always kind of wondered if my descriptions were good. I think I have done a decent job it just comes down to practice

    ReplyDelete
  25. I thoroughly enjoy reading all your tips and insights; keep 'em coming! Here's my personal issue with character descriptions: I like a multi-racial cast in my YA novels. As a black writer I just have no interest in an all-white world, but my characters's race isn't important per se. I may have a group of girls and one of them is black. Well, I want my reader to know that, but at the same time I don't want to blatantly describe her. But when I'm fifty pages in and then something is said that makes it clear she's black, it feels like I'm doing a "gotcha!" to my reader. At the same time I really don't want a reader imagining the characters as all being white just because my black, or Japanese, or Indian characters aren't stereotypical. It seems to be a problem in each story (except my latest which is fantasy and steers away from the whole issue of Earth races).

    ReplyDelete
  26. Anon: That's pretty much how most writers feel about writing in general, hehe. And it's true.

    Read Anything: Thanks! I'd suggest using your POV and letting them see and judge those folks however they would do it. Find little hints that aren't so blatant and slip them in where they feel natural. You might only need a word or two to show she's black, and there must be something your POV can observe that suggests race.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Cool post. I've found beta readers invaluable with this. I had a scene I thought was "slow" because there's a good bit of description of a city, but since winning the city is the main plot, betas said that showing how amazing the city was actually raised the stakes. Now I ask myself if giving extra description will add or deflate tension.

    Oddly, for how little physical description there is in The Shifter, I can see everyone very clearly. Maybe fewer details are easier to remember?

    ReplyDelete
  28. MK: I think the *right* details are easier to remember. If they add to the story and have meaning (like your example of the city) then readers remember. If it's just background noise, they forget.

    ReplyDelete
  29. I tend to err on the side of sparse descriptions as well. I feel that readers often put some of themselves into the characters and require just a point in the right direction. Of course, that said, I just had a critique of my work, and while some were quite comfortable with my level of description, a few asked over and over for more details, n characters and also in setting.

    Actually, I'd love to read mother article like this about setting description.

    ReplyDelete
  30. YES! Unless the visual is truly important, I mostly don't want to know what the author pictures, I want to put myself in the scene. That's tough with everyone creating green-eyed red-heads! I also tend to skim description (I can read Lord of the Rings faster than anyone this way!) and my crit partners do have to beg for a minimum level, which I do since some people like it and the rest can skim if they want!

    ReplyDelete
  31. Emily, I think I have a similar one on setting, so I'll dust that off for tomorrow. :) A holiday week is a good time to run the oldies but goodies.

    GSMarlene, I also have a crit partner who I trust to hit me with the description stick :) She makes sure I don't slack off. Handy folks to have, aren't they?

    ReplyDelete
  32. What I don't like is feeling like I'm getting their vitals. I'm not a nurse, I'm wanting to be nursed by the fantastic voyage of the read :-)

    For my novel that I released, I wanted to avoid the whole look at the mirror type of description as much as possible. One particular description was used to describe the MC as well as describe the change that had overcome the character she was interacting with at the time.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Angela, that's a smart use of it.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Hi Janice,
    The way you clarify your posts, makes writing seem effortless. I know it's not, but that's why I keep coming back to learn more.
    Personally, I liked the second example.
    Happy Thanksgiving
    Tracy

    ReplyDelete
  35. Tracy, yay! Thanks, nice to hear what I'm doing is working. That's my whole philosophy behind the blog--to make it easy for fellow writers to understand. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

    ReplyDelete
  36. I don't like to have paragraphs of description, but I think you do need to give the imagination something to work with. I like to slip in details like hair color and so on into normal prose, or when it would be appropriate for characters to notice them, and trust that readers who care about how I imagine my characters look will pick up on my little descriptions and remember them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's what I like as well, both to read and to write. The more that's backgrounded, the more immersive the world and story becomes.

      Delete
  37. Doesn't this depend on the genre? In a romance novel, you'd clearly want to spend more time describing the characters, since that's really a part of the story. But in an action-thrill probably not so much.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It does indeed. Some genres do expect more detail than others.

      Delete
  38. I was working on a fantasy that, in the prolgue, has a small love scene. I use Third-Person-Limited and instead of describing her love-interest is actually spread out among different paragraphs.

    You'd see one detail in one paragraph, then as he did something else, she'd point out the difference in his usual personality and add another detail.

    Is that good?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's how I'd do it. Spreading it out makes it feel more natural.

      Delete
  39. Thank you for the excellent advice.

    I just finished my first draft of a YA novel, and was shocked at the extremely low word count. Looking it over, I noticed that my subconscious had interpreted 'show, don't tell' as 'don't include any descriptions whatsoever'.

    As I usually skip over physical descriptions, I started wondering whether I really needed to include them. Fortunately, your post set me straight on that account.

    With your helpful tips in mind, I'll start working on a second draft immediately.

    One question though: How would you go about incorporating physical characteristics of your main character?
    Since I don't usually go through my day thinking 'I have brown eyes', I wonder how to give the reader that information without pulling them from the protagonist's POV.

    The Noveling Novice

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If it'd first person, I did an article on that: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/08/what-do-i-look-like-protag-describing.html

      If third person, I've found comparisons work well, as someone might compare physical features. Or the occasional "She pulled back her brown hair" is acceptable, even if we don't think that way (just be wary of doing it too much at once or it tends to sound distracting or self absorbed)

      And remember, if you don't like doing a lot of descriptions, just don't do them. Nothing says you have to provide detailed descriptions of what the characters look like. If you want to add just one or two details to cover the bases that's fine.

      Delete