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?

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