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Like my question above, I am mostly messing up at describing my character without making a huge list of words.

It sucks to know that readers are now skipping over the description that tends to be boring and go right into the story. So I would like some advice to fix my 'Describing' problem.

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    How do your favourite authors describe characters? Apr 25 at 22:50
23

Paint a picture, don't draw a sketch:

A list of details is occasionally okay in small doses, but only for things that you don't have time to introduce. This is like giving details to a sketch artist about a criminal. What color hair? Nose flat or thick or long? Distinguishing features?

A picture is often more of a suggestion of an idea than a perfect recreation of a specific thing, person or place. Lists can be factual, but you don't want facts as much as the emotion of the situation. Here's two descriptions of a young woman from a genetically-engineered master race:

Brynn the Alpha had a petite nose, blue eyes, straight blonde hair, and flawless skin. Brynn wore a white cadet jacket with no insignias over an expensive dress.

compare that to:

Maya realized Brynn was an Alpha. Brynn was painfully perfect, like a bust of Helen of Troy she had seen on display once. The girl's features were artificial, more crafted than grown. The white cadet jacket had no insignias on it, and Maya seethed at the unearned privilege of this girl wearing it. The dress underneath was worth several month's salary to someone as lowly as Maya.

The difference is the emotional content that is conveyed. Even a tank can be described in emotional terms, not aerodynamic but sleek, not thinly armored but flimsy. Not with a large gun but an intimidating maw of a barrel.

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    Please be careful about the examples you choose. Associating "master race" with blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes is disturbingly common in our society and has strong associations with some extremely evil historical movements. The second example has the additional value of not falling prey to this one-sided stereotype; I suggest changing the first example to avoid it as well. Apr 28 at 18:10
  • 1
    Or, a low-hanging fruit: simply leave away the last few words: "from a genetically-engineered master race". Even without such hint at a context, the examples would remain perfectly sufficient to demonstrate the point of this answer.
    – Levente
    Apr 28 at 19:47
  • @Greg Martin That is actually part of the point, but also as a German, I reserve the right to stereotyping my own ethnicity. In my story this is paraphrased from, the racial association was very deliberate, and the 'master race' had been nearly supplanted by several even more extreme 'super-human' master races, to point out that even supposed master races are one standard of supposed perfection away from being just like everyone else. But that is all subtext that I didn't add to the answer because it would detract from the simplicity.
    – DWKraus
    May 1 at 17:55
7

The primary reason for avoiding lists is because they are boring and dull and lame and stultifying in their insufficiency. So that means if the lists are written in ways that aren't those things, then lists can be okay, particularly when applied to non-POV characters.

But, it is important that list items reflect independent characteristics; so don't say sexy and handsome or muscular and strong since those terms describe the same characteristic. Instead, highlight the important elements that are independent of the other.

John walked into the bar, tall and handsome, and dumb as a hammer.

For POV characters, its effective and engaging if you suggest or allude to the description by their interaction with the world they inhabit.

Jane, walking into the bar, ducked down, avoiding the door frame, didn't blush, giving the patrons a view down her dress. Her hands, all six, rested, casually like, on her seven-guns, a silent dare for anyone to comment. No one uttered a word, not about her breasts, nor her green skin, nor about the bullet ridden body she dragged in with her.

Of course, these are stupid examples, but the point is that showing consequences or reactions to the qualities we want to describe will often produce more engaging prose and result in more engaging story telling.

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  • I can't help it: stultifying?!
    – Levente
    Apr 28 at 19:56
  • 1
    @Levente, one of my favorite words that so rarely fits in my writing
    – EDL
    Apr 28 at 22:24
5

I am a minimalist, in world building and character descriptions. I believe that less is better. The reader needs to know certain things about the world of the story and the characters that inhabit that world, but may well be better off not knowing anything more than that minimum.

That ignorance is not so useful for the author. They should know how the world works and the deep motivations of their characters. As the story progresses, the needs of the story should dictate what is offered to the reader and what is not. Is the color of eyes, hair, and overcoat of one of the characters important to the story? Probably not, unless the fact that a crime was committed by someone closely resembling the character in question. That fact drives the story and thus should be included in the material leading up to the police breaking down the character's front door.

When descriptive material is need (or the author cannot help waxing descriptive), a lot of information can be gleaned from how other characters in the story react to the target character. Beauty, ugliness, wisdom, nastiness, and serenity can all be inferred from the behavior of others. Joe has the hots for Betty; he says I love her body/hair/eyes/nose/etc. Bill cannot stand Pete; he rants about Pete's behavior. Judy is afraid of Bruno the Brute; she avoids him whenever she can and trembles in his presence when she cannot. We really do not need the author as uber-narrator to tell us what dialog and behavior can show us.

Write up your lists. Then, for each character interaction, ask how do the items on those lists affect what the other character say and do. Introduce just the material that is needed as late as possible.

Now for a quick example.

Jack: I just saw Larry.

Jill: Ugh!

Jack: He is not so bad. He has a great job. He drives a Beamer. Not bad looking, too.

Jill: Sounds like he is paying you to shill for him. Hiding his authentic self.

Jack: You are never going to find someone, if you insist on playing the Bitch Intimidator.

Jill: At his very best, Larry creeps me out. Then he starts oinking and rooting through the garbage. I can do so much better than Larry.

Jack: At least come to the party on Friday. I promised that you would be there.

Jill: Promised? On what authority? I am a full-fledged human being, with agency and intelligence. I am the only one who makes such promises.

Jack: Okay! Okay! I overstepped. But you need to relax, maintain life balance, not work all of the time. It will be fun. I will even run interference if Larry gets handsy.

Jill: And you need to stop trading on your extreme good looks. Your account with me is perilously close to overdrawn. And I can handle Larry. I am his worst nightmare. He just doesn't know it yet.

This is first-draft quality dialog but we have learned a lot about Jack, Jill and Larry. And not a list of adjectives in sight.

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  • What would you do with that dialogue in the second draft? At the moment, it sounds very 'as you know, Bob' Apr 26 at 7:18
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    Probably throw it out. Or rewrite it totally. Were there a story surrounding this conversation, it is likely that some of the 'as you know' elements would have been introduced earlier. Thus less to say. With what is left to say, the language could and should be subtler, a lot subtler. I was attempting to make a point rather than trying to make great literature. Apr 26 at 10:11
  • Fair enough! . . . Apr 26 at 11:24
5

As the author, you need all the details of the appearance of your characters. You need to be consistent in what characteristics your characters have so that you don't make mistakes or contradict yourself.

As a reader, I don't really care what the characters look like, only that they are consistent. If you tell me a character is shorter than average then have him "towering" over other people, there's a problem.

As a reader, I'm more interested in what they do, what they think, and how they interact.

As a reader, any extensive description of a character is a bore and a drag.

People don't mentally compose descriptions of other people. Don't have your characters do it, or have your narrative do it. It comes across as "drunken poet trying to describe murder suspect to police."

Bad:

Mike and Larry go to a punk concert and run into Fred. Fred has brown hair.

Better:

"Hey, Mike, Fred's over by the mosh pit!"

"Where?"

"Left side, by the stage. Tall, brown hair."

"Yeah! Come on!"

"Hey, Fred!"

"What! Hi, Larry! And Mike! I didn't know you guys were into this stuff!"

It gets the same information across, but it isn't a boring list of details (it probably isn't all that well written 'cause I'm a reader, not a writer, but you get the idea.)

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  • What's the difference between your two examples? Apr 27 at 16:30
  • @theonlygusti: One is dialog and has the characters making use of information and coincidentally sharing it with the reader. The other is a straight, narrative info dump. One is how real people act, the other is the way bad writers write.
    – JRE
    Apr 27 at 17:13
  • @theonlygusti: Also note how the dialog avoids the use of dialog tags. No "Right," said Fred. Poor writers tag their dialog. Good writers know that readers are fully capable of figuring out who said what and in what order. They also write dialog the way people talk rather than the way writers try to describe people talking.
    – JRE
    Apr 27 at 17:16
0

Consider Skipping the Description

A physical description tells the reader basically nothing about the character. A tall person can be kind, or a jerk. A blue-eyed person can be a genius, or a little slow. Since a character generally doesn't choose how they look, it's generally not indicative of who they are as a character.

(Some exceptions apply: if racism is a central aspect of your story, you obviously need to describe characters' race.)

Style is Often Worth Describing

Characters will style their hair and cloths, and general appearance as goth, or prep, or whatever sub-groups matter in your story. These are choices the characters make, and they are attempts to express community and ideals - they are definitely worth describing. If a character doesn't identify with a sub-group, their style is likely less important to understanding them.

Boring Descriptions Should be Skipped

It's pretty easy to describe meaningful style choices in an action oriented way. If someone is so pampered that they go to a rough part of town in an expensive suit, not understanding that this could cause a problem, that both tells you something about the character, and is likely to generate an interesting scene. The description of the nice suit, the expensive haircut, and the fancy car, is both necessary and interesting, because is plays into the action when the character is marked for a scam, or mugged, or hassled.

If the description is boring, it's not connected to the action, and it should probably be dropped entirely.

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