Today I want to look at a few examples of how characters are first introduced to the reader. How much does the reader really need to know about a character at first glance? How much description is needed? Let’s grab a few excerpts to examine.
First up, the character Kelsier, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn:
Kelsier had heard stories.
That’s the first paragraph. We basically have a name, and nothing else. The second paragraph, other than letting us know Kelsier is a ‘he’, is pretty much exposition of the setting by describing the stories Kelsier had heard. We don’t get much more on Kelsier until the third paragraph:
Kelsier watched the sun, his eyes following the giant red disk as it crept toward the western horizon. He stood quietly for a long moment, alone in the empty fields. The day’s work was done; the skaa had been herded back to their hovels. Soon the mists would come.
We get a little more about Kelsier here, mostly be observation. He’s quiet, contemplative, and he’s connected with a farm, though we’re not sure he’s a skaa (whatever that is), so he may or may not be a worker.
Eventually, Kelsier sighed, then turned away to pick his way across the furrows and pathways, weaving between large heaps of ash. He avoided stepping on the plants–though he wasn’t sure why he bothered. The crops hardly seemed worth the effort. Wan, with wilted brown leaves, the plants seemed as depressed as the people who tended them.
Still not much to go on. He seems to respect plants, or is at least careful enough not to step on them. And he seems depressed or downcast. But we’re still not sure of his status. Is he a worker or not? We get our first clue two paragraphs later.
The skaa hovels loomed in the waning light. Already , Kelsier could see the mists beginning to form, clouding the air, and giving the moundlike buildings a surreal, intangible look. The hovels stood unguarded; there as no need for watchers, for no skaa would venture outside once night arrived. Their fear of the mists was far too strong.
I’ll have to sure them of that someday, Kelsier thought as he approached one of the larger buildings. But all things in their own time. He pulled open the door and slipped inside.
So it looks like he is a skaa. But we’re still not sure, because in the next paragraph his entrance causes everyone inside to stop what they’re doing. We get more setting description, and then some dialog. Four paragraphs later we get our first, small dose of physical description:
“Fieldwork hasn’t ever really suited me,” Kelsier said. “It’s far too hard on my delicate skin.” He smiled, holding up hands and arms that were lined with layers and layers of thin scars. The covered his skin, running lengthwise, as if some beast had repeatedly raked its claws up and down his arms.
And so it continues, characterization details measured out in drips and drabs. By the time we reach the end of that section we still only really know what Kelsier is like, with only the barest inclination of this appearance.
The next character we are introduced to is Vin, a young woman. The first physical description we get of her is four pages into the chapter:
Theron eyed Vin, obviously noting her bloodied lip. She glanced away. Theron’s eyes lingered on her, however, running down the length of her body. She wore a simple white buttoned shirt and a pair of overalls. Indeed, she was hardly enticing; scrawny with a youthful face, she supposedly didn’t even look her sixteen years. Some men preferred such woman, however.
We don’t get a lot. Other than her bloodied lip, which is more setting than description, we know she’s wearing simple, workman-type clothing, she’s thin and looks young for sixteen. Not much to go on, really. Certainly not the “police sketch” writers often feel like they need to provide.
The thing is, readers have imaginations, and with even the most sketchy details provided we will start to fill in the missing data on our own. I picture Vin as being small, almost boyish, with dark bobbed hair and a cap like a Greek fisherman’s hat. The dark hair I likely got from the cover, but the hat? Where did that come from? It’s not mentioned, and it’s definitely not on the cover. I suspect it’s an unconscious connection; boyish worker-types in overalls have to have some kind of cap in my mind.
I suspect most of you, even with practically no physical description given, are starting to fill in an image of Kelsier as well. We get mostly personality clues from him, so clearly physical descriptions are not essential. The only physical clue we get is his scarred arms, and that’s it. And yet we don’t get thrown out of the story. We don’t feel a need to skip ahead in hopes of finding a scene where we get to see him from another character’s perspective in hopes of getting a rundown of his looks.
The long and short of this exercise is this: there’s no need to dump. We don’t need to know everything there is to know about a character condensed into two paragraphs. Clearly we can take our time, spinning the description out bit by bit, point by point as the story evolves organically.
That’s not to say there’s not a place for “police sketch” style description dumps. If it makes sense for your perspective character to notice such details, then go for it. Certainly it’s not out of the ordinary for a detective character to notice such details. They’re trained to observe. We’re not surprised when we get a string of details like, “She sauntered in the door slowly, like a panther, her long legs peeking out from the slit in her black silk dress, her high heels clicking steadily on the floor. Her blond hair was the color of cigar ash, her full lips were a little too dark. She wore a prim, red silk blouse that covered up to her neck, but her assets were too ample to provide much of a mystery. She was stacked, and she was dangerous. And she was headed straight for my desk.”
But some for some middle-aged city clerk who seldom even looks up from his work to suddenly wax so profuse in his observations would seem entirely out of place. Let the perspective of your characters determine who much and what kind of details to reveal, and don’t be afraid of being stingy with your description. It’s amazing how little you really need to provide without running the risk of losing readers. Give them even the smallest of cues and they’ll gladly do the work for you.
This is, of course, Brandon Sanderson’s style. Were this Bradbury you’d likely get several paragraphs of profuse, vivid detail elucidating not long their appearance but serving up a concise picture of their world view as well. That’s Bradbury’s style. He’s generous with the paint when he creates his word pictures.
Your style may be somewhere in between. You may need time to discover where your balance lies. You may learn to vary the amount of description in response to instincts telling you where to place your focus. There’s likely not any one or even a few “right” ways of approaching character description. We only know that you need to give your reader something, even if it’s almost entirely personality exposition rather than description.
Balancing your description is a writing skill we can all develop, and a good tool to have in your writers toolbox. It’ll be a different balance for nearly everyone, and that’s okay. But finding the balance that works for you is just one skill of many that writers need.