Thursday, February 5, 2015

How Much Description of the Characters Do You Provide, or Readers Want?

            I have occasionally been accused by some editors of not providing enough of a physical description of the characters I’m writing about. Maybe that’s just me, but I prefer it that way. I might tell you they have brown hair and blue eyes, or the reverse, but little else. I suspect a lot of readers want to create their own mental images of what the characters look like, but I could be wrong. For example, in a novel I have coming out in 2015, one character is described (by himself?) as average, and that’s about it.

            I am not a fan of long info dumps. If I’m going to tell you something about the character, I’m more likely to drip the information out slowly throughout rather than deposit it in a great dump at the beginning. I don’t care if he has a mole on the second finger of his right hand, unless it is an important clue to the story. I’d rather delve into how the characters speak, how they think and feel, and concentrate on keeping those details consistent within the context of any potential growth as the tale develops.

            One of my favorite young male characters receives little in the way of detailed physical description. However the reader does receive clues that he may be attractive through the number of females who attempt to get him into bed. A hint that he may be on the muscular side comes when he wins a wood-chopping contest. A clue that he is a normal male shows up when he goes weak at the knees whenever the queen takes him by the hand, gazes into his eyes, and sweet-talks him into something he does not want to do. When the princess speaks about weddings, and he has no idea she is referring to his. I slip this in as an example of the occasional typical male confusion when (sometimes) talking with women. The angle of his head when speaking to another character could give clues as to his height. By the end of the tale, the reader should know him well.

            Another example I can give is the detective in my fantasy detective series. I never really describe him. I’m not really sure what he looks like myself. I know he is on the shorter side, a mongrel, might have a moustache, but I don’t really care. I’m more interested in how he reacts, what he says and does, and his backstory. I describe his secretary as taller than him, rail-thin, wears dangly earrings, multicolored skirts and sandals. I tell the reader she is half-banshee and let the reader take it from there. Other than elves have pointed ears and goblins tend to be green, I’d rather just charge full speed ahead into the story. It is the inner workings that I find more interesting.

            If I describe any clothing, it is more likely to be what the female character is wearing than the male (unless it’s armor or weaponry). However in this example I think it would relate back more to the point of view I’m in at the time rather than a bias. Does this information matter to the reader is what I feel is important. 

            I suspect a number of readers and writers might disagree with me. I try to be consistent, especially if the character appears in more than one story, but other than minimal details, I tend not to worry. Do readers prefer the author draw them a complete picture of the main characters, or would they rather create their own mental image, or become the character themselves? What do you do?


Coming soon in 2015:   Alex in Wanderland,


Olga Godim said...

I tended to describe my characters in detail in my earlier stories, especially novels, but I'm moving away from it now. A physical description doesn't seem important anymore. For example, in my latest short stories I don't describe my characters at all. First - a short story is short, no space for descriptions. Second, it's not relevant to the plot in most cases. Sometimes I write oblique descriptions, like "her hand seemed so small compared to his", but other than that, no. The readers can draw their own portrait.

Big Mike said...

Once read that female readers like the hero described well but the heroine vague so that can visualize them self as that character. Same is probably true for male oriented genres like SF and political thrillers.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)