Ruminations on Character: Description

Mr Pecksniff 1889 Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)Describing you character for your reader is tricky business. As in real life, you only get one chance to make a first impression. And we want our readers to see our characters as we do because…well, we’re rather fond of our characters, and we want them to be, too. We may have a specific picture in mind. We may even have a specific picture on our wall or on our computer. We want our reader to get that exact same image in their minds, right?

Well, consider the following:

Jake was a tall man, easily over six foot, and built like a soccer player. His hair was dark brown and wavy, though clipped short in a business style, and his eyes were gray. His suit was a slate-gray, pinstriped Armani, his shoes a Ferragamo knock-off, and his briefcase was a dark red leather.

Now, without looking back up to the paragraph for reference, can you tell me what color his hair was? How about his eyes. Is he short or tall? What’s he wearing? What’s his name?

How did you do? Chances are you remembered maybe three out of all those details. Three pages on in a novel and you probably won’t remember even that much. David Farland suggests that more than three details about a character’s appearance is a waste. The reader won’t remember much more than that. Long descriptions are not usually effective, either. The human brain, when presented with a list, will usually remember best any items toward the beginning or end of that list.

Heavens, I even wrote the description above, and five minutes from now I’ll probably be able to tell you Jake is tall and wearing a suit, probably Armani–and that I remember only because Armani is the first designer that comes to mind for me usually.Uriah Heep 1889 Dickens David Copperfield character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

The other part of the problem is that readers have minds of their own. You can give them a description that detailed and they’ll still have someone entirely different in mind than what you were attempting to describe. In fact, even if you give them no detail at all other than a name and gender, the reader’s mind will supply a general image.

Is description even necessary, then? That depends. If it’s your main character it may well be useful to supply that much detail. If it’s the busboy in a minor scene, then probably not, unless you want him to be memorable for some reason.

But in the spirit of “Show, don’t tell”, it may not even be necessary to give a physical description. Do we fall in love with characters based on their descriptions in books? Sometimes, I’ll grant, but most of the time it’s not what they look like but who they are that draws us in. I recently finished reading a novel where all I remember about the main character’s appearance is that his nose had been broken once and had a knot that he rubs when he’s nervous or thinking. The female protagonist? I picture her as blond, and a little shorter than the main character, but I don’t recall ever being told that in the book. He’s a pragmatic, deep thinker who gets a good feel for people quickly, while she is a passionate, tough-minded woman with an independent streak. They both come from royal families–he accepts it and downplays it, she tries her best to avoid it.Sairey Gamp 1889 Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

I may be strange (okay, there’s no “maybe” there), but even though I finished the book just this morning I can only really tell you about their personalities, not their appearance. And that’s okay. It’s not that important to my enjoyment of the book, so long as I can differentiate them from the other characters.

This is not to say we don’t want or even need to provide descriptions of characters. We just need not stress about it. We can give a few memorable details and leave the rest up to the reader’s mind. We can spread the details out throughout the book and the reader will either accept it and add it to their mental composite or they won’t. We can focus in on providing a few evocative details that will stick in the reader’s mind–but be careful that your word choices don’t carry the wrong emotional connotation. Calling a character “pug-faced” may be memorable, but unless you give the reader other reasons to like this person their initial image will likely be negative.

When we do give details, they will likely stick more if they are presented in conjunction with action or movement in the story. “She brushed her glistening nails along the line of her jaw as she talked,” gives you a more potent image than “She had manicured nails,” and will likely stick in your memory longer. Even better is when you can make a sentence or description do double duty, revealing appearance and personality at the same time or, better yet, advancing the plot. “He reached for the paper just as the wind flung it farther along the sidewalk, where a scuffed, black wing-tip stomped it to the ground,” tells you a few things about the stomper before you even know who they are, but chances are you’ll always associate that character with black wing-tips. It’s also an entirely different tone than, “He reached for the paper just as the wind flung it farther along the sidewalk, where a burgundy high-heel flicked out, just trapping it under its toe.”The Marchioness 1889 Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop character by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

There are many different ways to describe characters, but the best writers are those who can do it efficiently and vibrantly, while finding ways for the description to do more than one thing in the novel. Let’s see if we can give ol’ Jake a make-over:

Jake might have stepped off the cover of Business Week, though as tall as he was it would need to be a torso shot, which would have mercifully hidden his Ferragamo knock-off shoes and a briefcase that clashed with everything.

Okay, we know a little less about Jake than in the first example, but I believe we may have implied much more, both about Jake and the character through whose viewpoint we’re viewing him. We also accomplished all that without making it sound like an inventory.

Next time you approach character description consider trying to do more with less, trusting your readers to fill in any blanks, while using words that go beyond mere description into personality. First impressions do count. Make ’em stick.

(All artwork From “Character Sketches from Charles Dickens, Pourtrayed by Kyd”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.