An oft asked question by writers is, “How much character description do you like?”
Here’s a bit of advice: Don’t bother asking it. Save yourself a migraine. For every person who replies, “I love a very detailed description. I want to see the character as painted by the author.” You’ll get another person who says, “Ugh. Give me little-to-none. I like to envision the character the way I want.”
Some readers prefer none, others medium, others love a full Rembrandt.
You can’t please everybody.
Decide how much character description you like. Then, study how to handle it with a deft touch.
First, let’s look at things to avoid:
1. The “laundry list” : Mary Sue was really beautiful. She was five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred and twenty five pounds. She had long blond hair and cornflower blue eyes. Her lashes were long and thick. Her brows were thin and arched. She had peaches and cream complexion, a small perky nose, and pouty lips. Zzzz………….
2. Purple prose: “long raven hair that fell down her back in silken ripples”, “azure eyes that sparkled like glittering stars- blue as the shiniest sea.”
3. mirror technique- This refers to protagonist sitting down in front of their mirror and studying their reflection as though they’ve never seen themselves before. In fact, the paragraph usually begins that very way: “I sat down in front of the mirror and studied my reflection. My eyes were large and soft brown. My curly brown hair was horribly frizzy….”
4. waiting too long to describe a character. If Sarah Collins first appears on page 5- don’t wait until page 40 to describe her. By then, readers will have imagined her appearance by themselves. If one has envisioned her as small, petite with red hair it will jar them to discover she is a tall brunette.
So how does one use a deft hand?
Here are some examples from different novels that utilize different techniques:
1. James Cain’s, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain was master of spare prose. This is Frank’s first sighting of Cora: “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” -This not only gives the reader a pencil drawing of Cora, it adds insight to Frank’s character. The mashing them in part indicates roughness and brutality.
2. From Wilkie Collin’s, The Woman in White. Here is a very detailed description: “The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing resolute brown eyes, and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression- bright, frank, and intelligent, appeared- while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.” If Cain’s sketch was a line drawing, here we have an oil painting.
3. Anne Bronte’s, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. “Mrs. Graham darted upon me- her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.
“Give me the child!” she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vhemence, and seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if in some dire contamination were in my touch, and then stood with one hand firmly clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large, luminous, dark eyes- pale, breathless, quivering with agitation.”
Here, Anne Bronte breaks up the physical description of Mrs. Graham througout the action. Anne actually reveals very little regarding Mrs. Graham’s appearance. We don’t know her height, body type, etc.. Anne instead pinpoints on specific elements. Mrs. Graham has dark hair and eyes, and pale skin. From her behavior, one clearly pictures Mrs. Graham with a strong, intense look about her.
What are some of your favorite physical character descriptions from books? Whether they be raw, medium, or well-done. Serious or humorous. What authors brought their characters’ appearance alive to you? Please give examples!