Do You Trust Your Readers with Your Character Descriptions?

describing characters in fiction


Did  you know that the act of writing could be considered a form of thought transference? Some might even consider it to be almost a psychic ability, maybe even telepathic!

You don’t believe me?

Let’s try it and see if we can do it – you and I. I’m going to send a thought directly from my mind to yours. I’ll form an image and we’ll see if you can see the same image I’m seeing. I won’t speak. I won’t even open my mouth.

In fact, chances are I’m on a completely different continent to you, but let’s try it anyway.

Are you ready?

Here goes…

I’m imagining a German Shepherd dog standing in a garden holding the shreds of a daisy bush in his mouth.

Did you catch my thought? Can you see the same image I’m seeing?

Of course you can!

Excellent, isn’t it?


character descriptions

I’m certain you saw the same image I wanted to portray; a young black-and-tan German Shepherd dog, whose ears don’t even stand upright yet, wearing an orange-red nylon collar. His ears are lowered against his head, which hangs in shame even though his brown eyes peer up at me dolefully. His long black tail is drooped low between his legs as he stands trying to hide behind a tree, while still chewing my favorite miniature purple daisies.

You saw the same image both times, didn’t you? Probably not.

The difference between the two descriptions is simple (and should be obvious). In the first, I trusted you to supply your own details. You were given only enough information for your mind to provide your own image. I trusted your imagination to create the finer points of an image for yourself. You could have guessed easily that he’d been chewing a daisy bush and you would have surmised that he looked like almost all other German Shepherd dogs.

If the first description was a part of a larger story, your focus would not be taken away from the plot line or the events of the tale unfolding around the solitary image.

In the second description, you were told precisely what to imagine and how to imagine it. I didn’t trust you to see the image I wanted you to see, so the second description is overly pedantic. If the second description was written into a larger story, your focus would have been jolted away from the plot long enough for you to stop and actually consider if you were picturing the right image or not. Besides, it reads a bit like a text book. Boring!

Let’s try the same exercise with a character from one of my own stories. Are you ready to prime those ‘psychic’ muscles?

Here we go…

Jeni’s gaze was drawn to him the moment she entered the room. Callum leaned against the bar, the dim light accentuating his features making him seem even more attractive. She steeled her nerves and strode towards him. He was well-dressed for the occasion, she noticed, right down to his shoes. He glanced over one shoulder as she approached and the look in his eyes made her step falter. His smile told her he hadn’t expected her to accept his offer.

Did you get the same image?

This time I’m not so certain we’re together on this image. How did you imagine Callum would look? What’s he wearing in your image? Where do you think the pair were going for their ‘occasion’? What type of shoes did you picture?

If we were to quiz my friend and fellow writer, Tina Morgan, on her image the response would be very predictable: She would have pictured an exotic looking man with long black hair, perhaps with a neatly clipped beard and moustache, wearing a white shirt unbuttoned most of the way down his chest. He would be waiting by the bar for a romantic date.

If we were to quiz my good friend, Tamara, she’d probably admit to images of an olive-skinned man with long dark dreadlocks and a white pirate shirt, very akin to Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean”, waiting by the bar to whisk her away on his pirate ship, and I’m almost certain another good friend, Anne, would be picturing a tall, sandy-haired man with a wide grin, dressed in a tuxedo – or maybe completely shirtless – or someone very similar to Hugh Jackman.

So what’s the right image? How does a writer let a reader know who or what to imagine?

I’m guessing that perhaps half of our readers would picture Callum as dark haired. Slightly less than half would have pictured him as a blonde and a few would have gone for brown just to be different. What image does the word ‘handsome’ conjure for you?

The description “Well-dressed for the occasion” is ambiguous at best. What occasion? Are they dressed for a night at the opera? Perhaps they planned a game of tennis? Will they be sky-diving? Perhaps scuba diving? Barn dancing? Storming the security-laden headquarters of the psychotic megalomaniac who runs the corporation for which they work?

The point is that the description above is under-described for the purpose of a sole example. However, in the context of an entire book, you should have already read enough about these people and their situation throughout the rest of the story to create your own image. As the writer, you could pepper the finer details throughout the dialogue or via the observations of other characters. Your readers will remember those details each time the character re-appears and they will become a part of the image that forms inside the mind each time the reader thinks of that person.

The image I wanted you to see was an image carefully planted into the reader’s mind throughout the rest of the story. There was no need to repeat the same information in a long boring chunk of narrative just because I wanted you to think he was gorgeous. Even if this was the opening scene to the story, the reader wants to know what’s going on – not sift through the boring details to find out why they’re in the bar in the first place.

You see, if you’d read my yet-to-be-published latest novel (that I haven’t even quite finished writing yet!) you’d know that Callum is blonde, because the protagonist tells us earlier that she doesn’t usually like blondes. She finds them less appealing than darker, more exotic men – yet she’s drawn to Callum. Because this description is inserted into other comments elsewhere in the text, there is simply no need for me to create a text-book description that requires you to stop focusing on the story in order to picture the right man each time he appears. Indeed, if the author has done his or her job and used the tools at hand (i.e. other characters  and situations), there should be no need to create huge blocks of descriptive prose at all. Trust your readers to use their own memories and their own imaginations.

You’d also know he’s dressed for work – all in blue – again, because a different character observes the boring, identical uniforms they’re all required to wear to work each day.

Finally, you would also realize that Jeni has finally consented to Callum’s suggestion of an attempted escape from the institution-slash-workplace in which they’re held as virtual slaves. There’s no romantic date planned, no sky-diving or barn dancing. Jeni’s nerves are not there because of the handsome guy at the bar (not entirely, anyway…). Jeni’s nerves are apparent because they’ll be shot if they’re caught.

As you’ve probably not read the book (because it’s not published yet), the images you created during the example are therefore the right images. There are no wrong images. You’re the reader – and it’s up to the writer to trust the reader to be able to imagine any image he or she wants!

As a writer, your job is to make sure your readers have a good idea of what is happening to the people in your story, but it’s also your job to allow them some room to exercise their own imaginations.

Let’s try it this way:

Jeni’s gaze was drawn to  his muscular frame the moment she entered the room. Callum leaned against the bar, the dim light making him seem even more ruggedly handsome to her tired eyes. His finely chiseled features were classically good looking: high cheekbones, well-defined jaw and strong chin, all accentuated by a the short golden stubble of a newly-grown beard. He ran his long, supple fingers through his luxuriant blonde curls and smoothed his blue uniform. She noticed his highly-polished black boots, his blue work pants tucked too neatly into them. He looked over his left shoulder as she approached and the searching look in his jade green eyes made her step falter. His sad smile told her he hadn’t expected her to accept his dangerous offer.

Bleah! describe novel characters

Could you imagine reading 400 bland, boring pages in a novel like this? The author has dragged an unsuspecting reader out of the story to stop and stare at the hot guy by the bar!

Not only is the description disgustingly overdone, but it still reads like a text book. It was even difficult to write for the purpose of this exercise! Seriously, I got up twice; once to get a drink and once to feed my dog  (yep, the same daisy-munching German Shepherd). Sadly, I have read quite a few books that feature these types of overly-prosaic descriptions and long-winded narratives for no apparent reason. Maybe publishers are going back to paying by word count? I can’t think of another logical explanation for it.

But enough complaining. Let’s compare the two descriptions properly. In the second version of the same scene, you’re told precisely what to imagine. It’s been over-described. A long chunk of description like this is enough to pull your reader out of the story and stop to focus on how they should be imagining the character or the scenery or whatever it is you’re describing.

You’ve read examples now of the same scene being under-described and being over-described. Which one is right?

My guess would be somewhere in between. Give enough information to let the reader know what’s going on and who’s appearing in the story, but don’t give so much information as to draw the reader away from the story itself simply to stop and stare and the gorgeous guy by the bar or the amazingly beautiful heroine who just pranced into the room.

Narrative should serve to further the story and to clarify points about setting, character and surroundings. Don’t be tempted to turn into a psychic and transmit a perfect image to your readers. Simply tell it like it is and get on with the story.

There are plenty of ways to get your image across to your readers clearly, but the important thing to remember is to trust your reader to be able to supply at least some of his or her own images of the people and places in your book. Especially when you are trying so hard to immerse them in your story – and keep them there!

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Author: Lee

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