fiction / novels / reading / writing

Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

I’m afraid I might be a lazy writer when it comes to character descriptions. In my own fiction, I usually do the large brushstrokes only: dark hair, dark eyes, the hands in a gesture, the mouth if it matters, just a few telling details are all I need—so I convince myself. Maybe I just don’t know how to poetically describe a person beyond a list of specifics: green hair, blue eyes, seven freckles, pointy nose, tiny mouth, yellow teeth, bat ears, I don’t know, should I go on?

I’m the kind of reader who doesn’t like photos of the supposed characters on book covers. I also don’t like for a writer to tell me so much about what a character looks like, I especially don’t like comparisons to celebrities—I like to form the picture myself. And, of course, I have that pet peeve about characters looking in the mirror in the first chapter so they can then have a long paragraph telling us what they look like (spare me). I also don’t like when scenes in movies end on closing doors, but it can work, so I shouldn’t outright cut out all mirrors and closed doors from stories, I guess.

But as I write this, the last of my freelance assignments (the last, I tell myself, and until the day I’m able to write full-time I should really listen!) I am having trouble with the simplest parts. I have to tell the reader what these people look like. And there are many characters to describe. And my paragraphs flounder there, gasping for adjectives.

So writers, how do you describe your characters? How much, how little, how organic, how specific? Do you just go for dark hair, dark eyes or move beyond that? Do you do the mirror?

And readers, what details do you need when reading a story? Do you like to create a picture for yourself or have it drawn out for you, at least sketched?

Personally I’d like to get away with not describing anybody so I can finish this sooner, have it out of my hands, get paid, and most importantly have the time again to work on my own novel, in which, I now realize, the narrator describes absolutely everyone around her but herself, a problem I suppose I should deal with at some point, huh?

10 thoughts on “Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

  1. I write as little as I can get away with. Crucial details only. In fiction because the reader’s imagination is as important as my words and in screenplays because it is the casting director’s problem, not mine.

  2. I have always loved the closed door in Godfather, and the elevator door in Blade Runner…

    It’s funny, because I started shifting uncomfortably, all: “Oh shit, I have a mirror scene in my first chapter!” then I remember: no, the character looks in the mirror and studies the scar on his chin. That is all he looks at. A scar on his chin, which makes him think about almost everyone he knows has a little scar on their chin, how it’s a sign of having an active childhood… he feels the bridge of his nose, the pits and dents on his scalp from old scars…

    And now I realize, he doesn’t use a mirror at all, it’s just by braille, and I’m totally in love with my novel again.

    Thank you!!

  3. oh, but to answer your question!

    I don’t do the mirror (see above) or if I do, it is so the character can see that they are tired, scared… it’s about the introspection of the char, not a window for the reader.

    I try to be relatively vague on the descriptives, “bright eyes” as opposed to color, unless I was writing a western in which case “watery blue eyes” would show up at least once…

    As a reader, I hate it when the author is jamming a full description, from the color of her hair to the way her nose looks to her chin and cheeks and oh-my-god hire a comic artist all ready!

    And, thankfully, I don’t think I’ve read much that goes for the mirror… is that common in the YA world?

  4. Nova-
    Do you remember the Sweet Valley High books?

    I read them all and EVERY SINGLE book beat you over the head with how these girls were identical twins except one had a mole, they were 5’6, perfect size 6, wore matching lavaliers around their necks, and were blue-eyed, blonde haired goddesses at 16.

    God I hated them. And I wasn’t even sure what a lavalier was. I just knew that, not having anything physical in common with these girls meant my life would probably never be as cool as their lives were.

    Don’t go that far! Although it is, obviously, memorable!

    I think for YA some concrete dteails might be helpful, as that age group would naturally be less sophisticated readers, and would not have yet developed the ability (or perhaps acknowledged the need) to bring so much of their imagination to the page with them, as readers.

    I don’t think they need to be inundated, but a general idea might help them picture who they are reading about.

    Good luck!

  5. I’m with you, as little description of character’s as possible. I think I mostly pull that off. I tend to write more descritpion about the character’s that the main character interacts with, which might be odd.


    I don’t like to be told too much about how someone looks myself, unless it’s something necessary to the character – for example, he’s very fat, she’s in a wheelchair, something that affects how other’s interact with him or how she has to live her life.

    Rambling now…

  6. I’m totally the same way. Brushstroke descriptions. I also prefer covers with less face. When everyone was rallying against the headless female epidemic on book covers I was like, “Book covers are certainly in their prime.”
    So I can’t really be of help… good luck figuring it out!

    As a reader, the less details the better… I don’t like having to wade through descriptions when I’m reading because I get tangled up trying to piece the puzzle together when I’d rather just read the story. I like brushstrokes because then what I’m reading becomes more intimate. I was given the piece of the puzzle but I got to put them into my own picture, if that makes sense.

  7. I also tend to avoid a set description. In my writing I let a character’s appearance evolve gradually, and always, if possible through another character’s eyes. I suppose your word organic best fits the way I describe appearance.

    As for reading, I can take some description. When you asked the question I thought immediately of Half of a Yellow Sun, which I’ve recently read, where I had such a strong physical impression of the characters and how they looked, and yet apart from the odd word (“curvy”, “tall”) there was hardly any description at all. That’s successful description isn’t it?

  8. So many responded the way I hoped you would! Okay, I’m not going to add in extraneous details — I’ll wait to see if it comes up in the revision.

    Annika: Now you’ve got me thinking that fiction writers should have casting directors. Well, maybe just this fiction writer. For THIS particular book. No, actually this gives me an idea: when I was having trouble seeing the characters from another assignment, I cut out pictures from a Teen Vogue and pretended those were the girls I was writing about. Lazy, yes. I think it helped though. I will officially be “casting” my project this weekend. Problem is, the story takes place in summer so I need bathing suits, but I guess I’ll have to make do.

    Oslowe: The Godfather closing-door scene was the one I was thinking of! (There’s another, can’t remember it…?) That final scene in the Godfather was so brilliant that when other directors try the same final note, well, it just pales in comparison for me. E knows all my movie hangups. One, which I could expand on into a whole post, is why does almost every movie have to have a puking scene? WHY? Do I need it for character development? No. Do I need it for visual symbolism? No more obligatory puking scenes. (I say this guiltily, as I had one in one of my novels. Never again. Unless necessary. And I would like to tell a story where graphic puking is not necessary.)

    Oh, and Oslowe, your scar scene is NOT AT ALL what I was talking about! I love how you said it’s “just by braille” — happy to help you fall back in love with your novel again.

    About the mirror scene: One writer in my MFA program got a great agent and big advance and hardcover first book deal and I tried so very hard not to be jealous. So I bought her book to support her and started reading and then, in the first chapter, came upon, no joke, a long paragraph of the narrator actually looking in the mirror so she could describe herself to us in vivid detail. It was so forced, I put the book down and haven’t picked it up since. I’m not so jealous anymore.

    Heather, Oh yes I remember the Wakefield twins! I read those books in elementary school, I could read one or even two a day sometimes… then I started swiping books off my mother’s shelves and Elizabeth and Jessica were history. With you in mind I will be careful NOT to create any perfectly perfect characters like those two, I promise. (Yeah, what is a lavalier?) Good points about concrete details, thank you!

    Mella, I do the same thing. The minor surrounding characters sometimes get more description than the important people. I guess when I really love a character I barely describe them at all. Hmmm… this will take some thinking.

    Courtney, I liked the headless female epidemic, actually. I like seeing pieces of faces without seeing the whole person, or seeing only the legs, or the hands. it’s abstract in a way — I invent all around it.

    Charlotte, I like what you said about letting your character’s appearance evolve gradually. I think I might be putting too much pressure on myself to form a clear picture right now… maybe it’s an excuse because right now my heart wants me to be writing something else. The description from Half of a Yellow Sun sounds magical — somehow those people came alive and it wasn’t from adjectives. I should read that.

  9. Thank GOD it’s not just me. I only have this problem when I bother to establish a concrete narrator (another lazy habit of mine). For the current project, I have taken great pains to give physical descriptions to everyone my narrator sees and interacts with. However, she’s still really a faceless person at this point.

    Sometimes she shrieks at me about the injustice of it all. Then again, I look for this in other stories that I read, like and think go well and wouldn’t you know? It seems kind of common.

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