When it comes to describing characters, the most common question ignored by writers is ‘Do readers need the description?’
We’ve all read passages where the main character either stands in front of the bathroom mirror, or looks in a shop’s plate-glass window and catches sight of themselves… and then gives an inch-by-inch internalisation of their features and clothing. So, you do this, do you, every time you find yourself in front of a reflective surface? No, of course you don’t. It’s a contrivance, one that makes readers roll their eyes and find something else to read.
There are various ways to give readers an indication of what your main character looks like, but some of them aren’t any better:
Jeremy Bowden hovered in the doorway. He was six-feet-five tall, and from crew-necked sweater to patent leather shoes was dressed in black. The only concession to colour was the buckle on the belt that hugged his slim waist, handcraft silver with an inner setting of turquoise to match his dancing blue eyes.
Take a moment to think about the words used. How high is this doorway if a six-feet-five man can hover in it? What sort of propulsion system does he have installed in the soles of those patent leather shoes? Those blue eyes – line dancing or two-step? And imagine that sort of description repeated for every character making an entrance; readers would grow old waiting for the story to get on track.
Radio is said to have the best descriptions because listeners supply their own, and the same applies to printed fiction. All the writer needs to do is offer broad outlines and a few highlighting touches. That way the story won’t find itself peopled with women who are all beautiful and green-eyed, possessing long raven / blonde / auburn hair that feels like silk, and wearing thigh-length cashmere sweaters.
Description of characters, as with description of places, should never be set in a block, but should be integrated among other elements to support the forward momentum of the story.
Hesitating in the open doorway, Jeremy Bowden checked the dress of the other guests. Informal to a man, just as the invitation had specified. Despite his deep and regular breathing, a familiar rush of heat began to moisten his skin and he pulled at the neckline of his sweater to give himself some air. If he lost it here he’d end up buried in the grounds.
The waiting apartment he’d expected; it was his due, the arrival of the bank statement a welcome bonus. He’d been given time to breathe, to stretch his limbs and replenish his tan before the courting had started. He should have made his situation plain then, but Jeremy Bowden was a name, and a name couldn’t be seen to be tarnished. Besides, he’d persuaded himself he could handle it. And then the invitation had arrived, and the limousine.
He glanced over the antique dining table, its silver and crystal set for ten. Ten was too many, too big a job, and he recognised no one by the window, strangers every one, until Oscar Wallace turned to smile at him.
‘Good of you to make it, Jerry.’ Wallace paused at the laden dresser to pick up a glass to match his own. ‘Here, have some spiced wine to warm you through and I’ll introduce you around. People want to meet you.’
People always wanted to meet him, to see the man that went with the name, but there’d been no handshake, Jeremy noted, only an offered glass hot enough to burn his fingers and scald his tongue. And he couldn’t say no, could he? It was too late to say no.
Description, action, introspection, reminiscence, dialogue, atmosphere… each given a highlight within this partial scene.
Description is a supporting, not a headline act, and should be used hand-in-hand with other elements. Readers don’t need Jeremy’s past life explaining in detail any more than they require to know the colour of his belt buckle. By his thoughts, his choice of action, they can read between the lines and build him, layer upon layer, into a person with a past, a person with failings, a person with a future; in short, a human being. Encouraged by the writer's guiding hand, they can attribute size, colouring and mode of dress to their individually desired level. Readers can often supply the better pictures, so let them.
Next: Naming is to Imbue with Life