Writing Character Descriptions

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Lately I’ve been perusing the internets for a good book. I find a lot of books by indie authors (on Goodreads, Google +, and Twitter), and most of the time, I will click on the link and read the first page to get a feel of the author’s style. There have been at least three instances in the past week where I made a decision not to purchase a book because there was an onslaught of character description.

I won’t name names (I never do!), but here is an example of something I ran across:

“Jamison, when are you going to marry me?”

“Girl, you wish!”

Denise folded her skinny arms and whipped her sexy, black hair cut towards the window, so much so that her boyfriend, with his almond colored skin and mustache that looked like a handlebar, scratched his Mohawk and furrowed his pecan colored eyes in confusion, all while whipping his long, muscular arms in the air as the waitress, who had long, blonde hair and eyes so red she looked like she’d been crying, and a stain on her uniform that looked like coffee but very well may have been tea, walked by and offered them some more lemonade.

“I don’t want any lemonade!” Denise said in a huff, and as the waitress left the table (also in a huff), she realized that she was on rollerblades, pink rollerblades with little flashing lights at the bottom, in every color of the rainbow.

She looked at Jamison across the table. Although she was mad at him for not wanting to marry her, she laughed because he was still whipping his arms in the air.  Oh, how she’d always loved those arms! In fact, that’s what had drawn her to Jamison in the first place, the fact that he looked like a basketball player, and would have been one if his five foot nine frame had only been taller and if his mother, with her dark red hair, plus sized body, hazel nut eyes, and girlish smile, had only allowed him to leave their house, which was blue, not quite decrepit but getting there, and owned by his grandmother, who was sick and shut in, but still managed to gamble away the family’s fortune through online slot machines….

Obviously I had some fun here (tehe), but I think you get my drift: too much description can definitely be a killer.

When it comes to describing my characters, my personal preference is not to be too heavy-handed (I also don’t mind light description when I’m reading because my imagination fills in the gaps). I don’t describe every single character as they are introduced on the page because I think it reads a bit too much like Writing 101: Insert Description Here. I do describe the main characters, not just by giving what Sol Stein calls “Movie-house ticket taker” description: I try and tie the physical description with a trait that reveals something about the character’s personality or life: something that will (hopefully) add another layer to the character. Is the character beautiful? Well, this might be important if she often uses her beauty to get what she wants in life. Does the character have a strange birthmark? Well, that might be helpful when she sees a news article about a kidnapping that happened thirty years prior (and a picture of the stolen baby with the same strange birthmark…).

Or sometimes, I might just say, “The lady walked into the room. She was wearing a hat.”

Of course, everything depends on the story and genre, but I don’t think there’s a need to describe every single character (especially nonessential ones), and when we do describe characters, I don’t think there’s a need to go overboard with the description.

What about others? As writers, what’s your approach to character descriptions? And as readers, what are your likes and dislikes?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


16 thoughts on “Writing Character Descriptions

  1. Hi, Quanie,

    Long time. I believe all new writers go through the loading-the-book-with-character-descriptions phase, but we get over that with time. I have to admit this is part of the reason why I download samples from Amazon for every book I buy. When it’s loaded like that, it’s usually a hint that the book will be a heavy read.

  2. I was laughing out loud by the time I got to the part about the waitress’s rollerblades. ^_^ And I have seen description that bad – I’ve even written it. One of my earliest books not only had the main character waking up from a bad dream right at the start, she went to look in a mirror afterward, and I think I spent three paragraphs describing her. Somehow, none of that description showed that she’d just gotten out of bed. O_o

    I think the only time it’s okay to devote all your attention to a character’s appearance is when they first show up, and only if the details of their appearance are important. Otherwise, you can find ways to fit it in as they talk, move, and do whatever else they’re doing. It should fit naturally, like everything else in the prose. …if only it was that easy.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..No One’s Bitches.My Profile

    • Hi Mason, you had me laughing here: “Somehow, none of that description showed that she’d just gotten out of bed.” Ha! I look back at some of my earlier stuff and though it’s cringeworthy, the only way we can get better is to write, no matter how bad it is initially.
      Quanie recently posted..Writing Character DescriptionsMy Profile

  3. Ok, for a minute there, I thought the fake description was real, and I was like, “WHO THE HECK IS THIS CRAZY WRITER???” Lol! But yes, the exaggeration worked – it’s so true that descriptions stick out like sore thumbs when they’re not part of the actual story somehow. I tend to leave them out til fairly late in the story; I’ll drop hints about the basics (age, gender – obviously! – ethnicity, etc.) but I don’t give specifics until I find a place where they really fit. That’s probably not the best option, either, though!
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..Summer ReadingMy Profile

  4. Ahahaha, the fake description up there really killed me! I’ve actually read a few books that never describe the main character, or do very briefly. It doesn’t seem to get in the way of enjoying the story. I always go with “Less is More”!

  5. Thank God that opening was totally made up… you had me going there for a minute! I’m still trying to find my balance with descriptive writing. I LOVE dialogue and sometimes focus on that more than describing characters or settings. Like you, I have a great imagination, so I don’t depend on the author to describe everything in detail when I’m reading. As long as I get the gist of things, I’m good.
    Faith Simone recently posted..Poet’s Corner Cafe: The Stillness of My SorrowMy Profile

    • I hate to break it to you Faith, but that opening is very similar to the book’s opening that inspired this post! Cringe! I love dialogue as well and I’m one of those readers who doesn’t mind a lot of it as long as it’s interesting and moves the story along. I’m getting the feeling that most of us here are okay with minimal description. That’s something that I will definitely keep in mind if I’m ever tempted to “insert description here.”
      Quanie recently posted..Writing Character DescriptionsMy Profile

  6. Oh gosh! That is way too much description.

    I agree with you 100%, Quanie!It’s nice to give a little description so we can picture the characters, but there is such a thing as going overboard and too much details can bore a reader to pieces, especially (I find) when it’s of people and rooms.

    When a minor character first appears I might mention their hair and eye color, and maybe something that helps that character standout from the rest of minor characters, but I keep it simple. And with the hero/heroine, I don’t detail their appearance on the first page. For Hurricane Crimes, I didn’t reveal Beth’s hair or eye color until a few pages into the story, when it was necessary.

    Great post!
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Writing About: A Character’s Past LifeMy Profile

    • LOL! Yes, waaaay too much! I have a couple of beta readers who are always trying to get me to describe my characters right away, so I thought that maybe some readers like that kind of stuff. I don’t feel that’s always the right thing to do so like you, I don’t always describe even main characters right away. And I’m with you: describe when necessary!
      Quanie recently posted..Writing Character DescriptionsMy Profile

  7. Not to pick on romance novels, because I LOVE them, but this has always been a problem with that genre, I’ve found. The physical characteristics always seem to be extremely important. Her “flaxen hair” and his “sinewy biceps.” Blech. It just always seems to slow things down to me, but I know because physical attraction is such a part of it, it’s a necessary evil of the genre.

    • I hadn’t thought about that. I guess if the characters are going to fall in love instantly then they probably should be attracted to one another, so how they look will probably be important in that genre. And I totally agree with you that all of that stuff slows things down. Double blech, lol.
      Quanie recently posted..Writing Character DescriptionsMy Profile

  8. Gina, I am SO with you on the description! Sometimes I describe characters at a later point in the novel as well because as you say, depending on what’s going on in the scene, it may not be the right time to describe how a character looks. And you’re right: that paragraph was hard to read. The actual book that inspired this post…I couldn’t get past the first page! Yikes!
    Quanie recently posted..Writing Character DescriptionsMy Profile

  9. Great post, Quanie! I definitely try to steer clear of Writing 101: Insert Description Here. I’ve only written one novel but during its course, I described my characters when I thought it was necessary. For one of my main characters, we don’t get her physical description until several chapters in although she was introduced in the 1st chapter. But my main focus wasn’t on her looks at this time because there was a tragedy unveiling which played a bigger role. I guess it just depends on what is going on within the scene and setting and how the author chooses to introduce his/her characters.
    Oh boy, that passage you shared was a rough one to read! The first paragraph was an entire sentence! I had to read it three times over before moving on, lol!
    Gina Stoneheart recently posted..Carry Me Away With the WindMy Profile

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