- Decide whether to take a descriptive or minimalist approach to describing the viewpoint.
- Pick a detail of physical description that sums up each character.
- Get any physical description in soon after a character is introduced so the reader incorporates it into their image of that character.
- Use descriptions to develop the viewpoint’s character as well as the character being described.
- Try people watching. It’s fun!
The look on my friend’s face told me I’d rather not hear what she was about to say. As soon as she said, “you did it again,” I knew she was absolutely right. I hope I succeeded in suppressing my groan but I probably didn’t.
She had just critiqued one of my stories and yet again, I had neglected the physical description of my characters. Description is not a talent of mine, and I have a bad habit of avoiding it altogether. In my last few stories, I’ve been trying to confront my cowardice and develop techniques cribbed from other authors. In this post, I’m going to talk about character description and leave settings and objects for another day.
Should the viewpoint be described at all?
There are two schools of thought about how much description the viewpoint character should be given. Let’s call them the descriptive and minimalist schools. The descriptive argument is that description gives the reader a mental picture. The minimalist argument is that readers identify better with a viewpoint if they’re left to fill in the gaps in their own image.
I tend to think both schools have merit, depending on whether the viewpoint’s physical characteristics are important to how they experience the world. If a character’s appearance makes them stand out, people will react to that and they will never be allowed to forget what they look like and what it means to the people they interact with. In that case, the description becomes an essential part of characterisation.
For example, in Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast by the late and very much lamented Eugie Foster, the viewpoint changes appearance several times and the other characters’ reactions change accordingly, so the descriptions are essential. By contrast, Dashiell Hammett’s The Tenth Clew exemplifies the minimalist approach. Hammett doesn’t describe the viewpoint at all, so of course he looks like me. Unless you read the story, in which case he looks like you.
I’ve used both approaches in my own work. Steel in the Morning and Newgate Jig both have Le Méridian as a viewpoint. He is a physically imposing black man in Regency London who moves among the middle classes in spite of his own penury. I had to mention his race and size because that was what the other characters reacted to. I didn’t describe the shape of his mouth or how far apart his eyes were, because they didn’t shape his character or his position in the milieu I so cruelly dropped him into.
When I wrote The Endocrine Tyranny, I wanted Gareth the viewpoint to be an everyman, so I took the minimalist approach. I originally said nothing of his size build, looks, ethnicity or anything else because I wanted the reader to be able to paint him in their own image. A critique on an early draft was that it didn’t seem right when Gareth carried a woman down two flights of stairs, because the critiquer had developed an image of a man who was not physically strong. I threw in a mention of him going to the gym twice a week, implying that he was at least reasonably toned.
That critique highlighted another problem with my character descriptions, which is my tendency to make my viewpoints in my own image. I would have been able to carry a small woman down two flights of stairs and I’m not exactly a bodybuilder. However, I am bigger and was then a bit stronger than average. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean anyone can and more importantly, didn’t mean I can assume every reader would assume Gareth could. Thus Gareth got sent to the gym.
Describe by detail
I’ve had a few critiquers say they want a full description of a character, but I’ve always disagreed. Impressions are usually dominated by a single feature and when we’re describing a character, picking the right feature goes a long way toward sketching the character as a whole.
Most people I’ve heard argue for the full description are avid readers, and often writers, of romance. Romance is one of the few genres I don’t read, and it may be that the full description is a genre convention. I wouldn’t know, but the danger of a paragraph-long description is that it’s an expository lump which will probably set the reader to skimming.
Perhaps more importantly, most people don’t think of themselves in terms of a full description. Ask most people to describe their facial features and they would have to think about it. It’s not something that most people carry around in the back of their mind. Further, people don’t necessarily view themselves as others see them, so any description is as much of the character’s psyche as their appearance.
Don’t let the viewpoint become a daffodil
In Greek mythology, the vain Narcissus became so entranced by his own reflection that he stared at it until he turned into a daffodil. That tells us all we need to know about what sort of person spends too much time communing with their mirror. Unless the viewpoint is as self-obsessed as Narcissus, they are simply not going to do it.Further, Narcissus was unusually happy with what he saw. People who spend a lot of time contemplating their appearance are usually less than happy with it. A man whose features are the envy of the ordinary likes of men like me may spend some quality time with a mirror, but he’s less likely to be admiring his deep blue eyes or perfect teeth than fretting over whether his hairline is receding or his tan needs topping up. Perhaps the mirror offers more scope for characterisation than description.
If there’s an aspect to the character’s physical appearance that is important to their character, it’s best to mention it as early as possible, while the reader is still developing their image of the character. Leave it too late and they will build their own picture in their mind and will trip over anything that contradicts it.
The features that are important are likely to be the ones that affect how the character experiences the world and so can be worked in without the viewpoint actually having to think it. For example, tall people duck reflexively when they go through low doorways, even if they don’t need to. People whose appearance is distinctive often get fed up with the looks they attract. Perhaps they’re obese, or have a birthmark, or have an ethnicity that’s unusual in the milieu of the story.
Descriptions from a viewpoint character
For the same reasons, the way the viewpoint describes another character says a lot about them. Ask someone to look at someone else and give an impression, and they are unlikely to list that person’s biometrics. Their impressions will be dominated by one or two features, which may be as much about demeanour as physical characteristics. For example, a few years ago I knew a man who regarded himself as something of a spiritual guru. I can’t remember his face but only his permanently fixed grin. If I ever base a character on him, the grin is what I’d describe. It dominated my impressions and indicated his character.
Another example I often use when pontificating in the pub came out of a story I critiqued, in which a woman described a man she was attracted to. The author used adjectives like ‘handsome’ and ‘sexy’, so I suggested something a bit more illustrative. The viewpoint could have lost her soul in his deep brown eyes or she could have rated him as a seven, perhaps even an eight. Both of those descriptions give much the same impression of the man, but very different impressions of the viewpoint.
People-watching can be a worthwhile exercise. Sometimes I sit somewhere unobtrusive and see how much I can tell about someone by their appearance. The details that give me information tell me what details I should use to describe my characters.
Now I need to keep that in mind as I edit the story my friend was talking about.