Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Importance of Character Descriptions

Picture from stock x-change 
by urmatecu78
There was a thread on Hatrack (a writers’ forum) a week ago about character descriptions.  I see these types of questions coming up on writers’ forums every once and awhile.  I was going to comment on this thread until I realized that my answer would be such a huge essay that I might as well use it for a blog post.  :)

Every time this topic comes up there is always the suggestion not to worry about description and leave it to the imagination of the readers.  I know everyone is different and some writers on Hatrack specifically are going after the short story market which has different rules than the novels that I read and write, but it has always struck me as odd to not describe the characters.  I’ve never read a novel that didn’t.

How much description is another story, and there is a sweet spot for me between too much and too little.   If descriptions go on for large blocks of text I sometimes (not always) get bored, and my mind starts to wander.  Also if the description is too specific, I sometimes have a hard time putting all the words together to form a picture.  I usually give up when the author is too detailed and choose just a feature or two and fill in the rest. 

But I also hate it when the descriptions are too vague or not there at all.  I keep characters in a flexible state when I first start reading because I know that details are still coming.  So I wait for those details to come so I can solidify the character’s appearance.  If those details never come, the characters feel vague to me, and I have a hard time connecting with them.

Perhaps I’m alone in wanting some details.  I hear the advice all the time that appearances don’t really matter; it doesn’t matter if the character’s eyes are blue and hair is brown.  Maybe other readers do like to be able to picture the characters however they want, but I honestly think that appearances do matter, and while hair and eye color usually don’t play a role in characterization, how a character looks is more than the facial features and coloring.  A lot of characterization can come from a physical description of a character.

For example:  Professor Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was very thin and wore shabby robes, and appears sickly.  This description leaves the reader wondering why he is this way.  Is he sick?  Is he poor or just doesn’t care to keep up his appearance?   How he looks is tied into who he is, as the reader learns later in the book.  But his appearance gives hints that there is something different about him, and this intrigues the reader and keeps them guessing until Lupin’s true nature is revealed.

How a person dresses and cares for themselves is very much tied to who they are.  A man who dresses in an expensive three piece suit is much different than one who wears a sports jersey and jeans hanging down a little too low.  I’m not saying to use appearances to convey stereotypes.  There is no reason the guy wearing the jersey and jeans can’t be a successful lawyer or someone with tattoos and blue hair can’t be a scientist, but there is a reason the lawyer prefers to dress like a gangster and the scientist chose to dye his hair blue, and that is part of characterization.  There are subtle clues that can give insights into characters by how they choose to present themselves.  

My point is, character descriptions is one more way to provide insights into a character, and honestly, I don’t understand why a writer wouldn’t want to take advantage of that.  I think there is something very interesting to explore in how a character chooses to look.  There is a dynamic going on between who we really are and how we want others to see us, and how we dress or do our hair (yes, I’m a girl) plays a huge part in that.  I don’t understand why a writer wouldn’t want to include that aspect of their characters.

Furthermore, character descriptions can be used as a sign post to signal which characters will be important later in the story.  The more description given to the character, the more that character will be remembered, so it is a good tool to help readers know who is important and who isn’t.

For example:  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge is sitting in the shadows next to Cornelius Fudge at Harry’s hearing, and when she finally leans into view Rowlings goes into great detail to describe how she looks like a toad.  It is a memorable description, and I’m sure Rowlings did that on purpose, so the readers would pay attention to her.   And when she shows up at Hogwarts later, I definitely remembered her vividly from the hearing and didn’t need any reminders.  It is an excellent technique.

So even though I do agree that whether a character is tall or short or has brown eyes or green has little to do with characterization.  I do believe that a good description can convey a lot more than what a character looks like.  I’m sure there are circumstances where what the character looks like really doesn’t matter to the story, but I think most of the time describing a character’s appearance can be an excellent tool for characterization. 



  1. Finding the sweet spot is something I've struggled with. It's funny, at the beginning of the post I was thinking "You know who's great at character descriptions? Rowling." Then I scrolled down and you had beaten me to it!

    1. Yes, Rowling is great at character descriptions. I think that is why so many of her characters are so memorable, and it definitely plays a part in what makes her books so amazing.

      I struggle with that sweet spot too. :)

  2. I think describing the character is important. I don't care a lot about the physical descriptions as information about the person inside. Of course physical descriptions are important to who the character is a beautiful herione or villian, is going to be different then a ungly herione (is there a herione who is ugly) or vilian. It seems to me without having done any research on it. Writers often under describe the hero/herione in that mostly they are average looking and don't seem to have extremes in personality or have the general hero qualities loyaly, fight for what right ect. Writers often more focus on flaws of the side characters. Maybe it is to make the main character more identifiable to the reader. For example in my humble opinion, Bella(Twilght) is quite boring nothing really extenishies her character. In fact, I spend most of the book wondering why Edward and Jacob love her. She seems to wonder so too. I suppose that is the magic of the book a dull, socially ignored teenager moves to a new town and everyone finds her facinating including the hottest unabable boy in the high school who happens to be a vampire.

  3. This is a fantastic post, MaryAnn. I character descriptions can add so much to a character. I'm not good at it, but I'm getting better. I just wrote a character with unruly hair. At the time, I had no idea why he didn't take better care of his frizz, but the answer to that question has practically taken over the whole story. I like to imagine JK Rowling doing the same thing with Lupin--you never know, she might have had a good time describing him, and somehow, the description guided the kind of person he ended up being. You just never know.

  4. You are so right. I have always eschewed lengthy character descriptions because I feel like it pulls the reader out of the story. I think I struggle with knowing how much is too much, or where description is important, versus where it might be detrimental. (Eye color, as you said, doesn't really alter who the character is, except perhaps in The Host.) But I never gave any thought to using description to build a character. It's not only about showing the reader who this character is. You can use a character's appearance to cultivate feelings in other characters, as well, which is often just as important since readers are guided by not only their own judgment, but the general consensus of the people in the book.

    I think I'll try to keep this in mind as I'm world/character building. It opens so many possiblilities.

    Thanks, MaryAnn!


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