Character Description – Try Not To Do It

Facebooktwitterrssyoutubeby feather

Why do so many writers spend so much time and so many words on character description? Get to the story, already!

Okay, there’s more to my feelings on the subject than just that irritable exclamation, and I mean more than just describing the POV character. Any character description falls into this bucket. And I’m trying to come at this from the perspective as a reader for enjoyment, not in any professional capacity, though some of my internal comments when I’m submission reading for Bards and Sages may relate to this.

Specifically, I’m talking about is when a paragraph or more (sometimes a lot more) gives me every possible physical detail about the character’s appearance. I understand the idea is usually to make the character as real in my head as they are to the author, but aside from not trusting my imagination to build a picture of the character, how much of it really matters to the story?

My perspective as a reader is to question why you’re spending so much time telling me what the character looks like when it doesn’t matter. Give me what’s relevant right now and sprinkle other bits in throughout the narrative as they’re needed. Blocks of irrelevant description – and most physical data about characters is going to be irrelevant – only serve to slow the pacing of your tale, and not usually in a good way.

Character description isn’t character development and it doesn’t generally move the story forward. I’m not convinced it generally does anything for the setting, either. So if it doesn’t develop character, plot, or setting, why is it in the story?

It shouldn’t be. Nothing should be, unless it furthers one of those three things: character, plot, setting.

However, I’m not trying to say there’s no place for character description in fiction writing, because of course there is. But there needs to be a narrative reason for any description you devote words to and that includes character description. If it doesn’t matter to your story whether the heroine is blonde, brunette, auburn, or blue-haired, then don’t waste words on it. Let the reader picture them however they want to in their mind. The same goes for every other physical attribute you might ascribe to someone.

If your antagonist is a Martian who only kidnaps brunettes to sell into slavery back home because that hair colour is completely unknown on Mars, then it deserves a mention or two, but only when it’s important for the reader to know that so they understand what’s going on. That hair colour can now tell you something not about the heroine but about the Martian Slaver (character) and Martian society (setting) while it gives a reason for our heroine being kidnapped (plot).

My work as a writer tries to take this into account. If there’s no need for the reader to know something, why bother distracting them with it? I may need to know it as the writer, but I tend to think of character in the same way I think of worldbuilding: only 10-20% of it should make it into the story. Yes, I need to know a lot more about the world so I understand the background mechanics of everything, but background mechanics don’t need to be in the story until and unless they become important.

Even if you completely disagree with my take on blocks of character description, please, for the love of the written word, don’t have your POV look at their reflection and tell me what they see. The character knows what they look like and no real person would ever do that without a very specific reason that mattered to their own personal story. Find that reason and make it apparent before you start the description. Otherwise, you’re giving your reader a big block of text to skip.

This has been a public service announcement that some people will probably have strong feelings about and others will wonder why I’m spending more than 600 words on it. Clearly, I fall into the first camp.

Be well, everyone.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.