Are Your Characters Faceless Blobs? (Or, How Exhaustively Do You Describe Your Characters?)
Writers tend to be of two minds when it comes to describing a character’s physical appearance. Either they like to a) introduce each character with a fully-fleshed description that gives the reader an instant picture in their mind, or b) sprinkle in details sparingly, when they come up organically in the story.
(Of course, there are some writers who prefer a third option, c) divulge nothing about the characters save, basically, their names. This tactic, I DO NOT recommend. The idea behind it is, I guess, noble: to let your readers form their own interpretation of a character’s physicality free from the author’s influence, and to avoid bogging down the prose with a clunky descriptive paragraph. I can see what these writers are trying to do, only most of the time … they don’t do it. They end up creating faceless blobs: featureless talking heads that leave little impression on the reader.)
So, when it comes to describing characters, how much detail is too much? Should we saturate our pages with description, or sprinkle them?
Personally, I’m a big fan of describing characters upfront — it gives the reader a good mental picture right off the bat, and can provide a quick glimpse into the character’s personality. A character who is shabbily-dressed creates a different impression on a reader than one who is perfectly groomed and well put-together. A character with a greasy hooked nose and lank hair is going to be thought of differently than a character described as having cherub cheeks and gleaming blue eyes. A character who isn’t described at all … isn’t going to be thought of. At all.
JK Rowling is great at describing characters. Think of any one of her characters, and I guarantee you immediately have a detailed, fleshed-out vision of them in your mind. For example, this is one of my favorite descriptions of a character, from Goblet of Fire.
Ludo Bagman was easily the most noticeable person Harry had seen so far, even including old Archie in his flowered nightdress. He was wearing Quidditch robes in thick horizontal stripes of bright yellow and black. An enormous picture of a wasp was splashed across his chest. He had the look of a powerfully built man gone slightly to seed; the robes were stretched tightly across a large belly he surely had not had in the days when he had played Quidditch for England. His nose was squashed (probably broken by a stray Bludger, Harry thought), but his round blue eyes, short blond hair and rosy complexion made him look like a very overgrown schoolboy.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, UK edition, page 80
Instantly, I have a vivid mental image of Bagman — and, the descriptions Rowling uses also give us a hint at his character: a man with boyish charm and good looks who has slightly surpassed his prime. In one paragraph, we know exactly who Bagman is, we’ve formed our own opinions about him, and he feels like a real person.
In Describing Your Characters, by inkfish7 on DeviantArt, the author says to bring a character to life, to get a reader attached to a character, two things need to happen:
1) The readers need to be presented with the character’s personality.
2) The readers need to construct a physical, 3D image of that character in their minds.
When it comes to giving your reader physical details about your character’s looks, clothes, and mannerisms, they go on to say:
Be purposeful with your specificity. In other words, don’t randomly include a specific detail unless it somehow elaborates upon your character. Remember, you’re adding these descriptions to be useful in your characterization. If you just throw them in willy-nilly, you may craft your character into a jumbled mess of mixed signals.
As in, don’t just list a bunch of adjectives and attributes. Try doing what JKR did with Bagman — give a few details that not only create a complete picture, but set up the character for the story to come. Ludo Bagman is no longer the successful Quidditch player he once was — perhaps he’s still well-meaning, and he certainly loves sports, but he’s deeply in debt from gambling and has fallen on hard times. As Angela Ackerman says in The Writer’s Bane: Describing a Character’s Physical Description, “Choose description that is apt and characterizes rather than conveys information.”
Of course, weaving in details sparingly can absolutely work in your favor. All we basically know of Katniss Everdeen is that Gale, who has olive skin and dark eyes, could pass for her brother, and that she usually wears her hair in a braid. And yet, reading through the books and being privy to her innermost thoughts, we get a very clear image of her in our heads. The Girl on Fire is no less real to us than Mr. Bagman.
Bottom line: You have to give your readers something. A hair color, a gender, a relative size comparison — any detail you can give them about your character’s appearance will help build that character in their imagination. And whether you’re listing tons of details, or sprinkling out just a few, mention only traits that are going to serve a double purpose: describing your character and their personality. Choosing between tactics A and B really comes down to what works better in the story.
But never choose C. C is a bad idea and it should feel bad about itself.
Other resources worth checking out:
The Writing Box: Describing Your Characters Through Showing.
Writing Questions Answered: Describing Clothing and Appearance.
Reference For Writers: Describing the Physical Attributes of Your Characters.
What About Writing: Describing Characters in the First Person.
Which do you guys prefer? Do you like when authors give you a big, juicy paragraph describing a character right off the bat, or would you rather details come sparingly as the story moves along? What about your own writing? What’s your favorite character description you’ve ever written??? TELL ME, LEAVE A COMMENT, I WANT TO MEET YOUR BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS!
An earlier version of this post was originally shared on my old blog, Christina Writes.