Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Need to Know

How sharp a picture do readers have of your characters' appearance? How sharp a picture do readers need? I don't decide this question, my characters do.

I want readers to know my characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in. I want people to know Charlie is always hungry or Suzanne is afraid of heights. Someone's fear of poverty is far more interesting to me than what colour of shoes they have on their feet. However, does this character have a fixation about shoes? If so, I'm going to describe each pair they choose to wear in detail.

I'm certainly not suggesting saying nothing about outward appearances; readers want to be able to develop characters' pictures in their heads. I'll let people know if Mike is so tall he needs to duck through doorways or Cynthia's feet don't touch the floor when she sits. Hair colour? Probably. If they're heavy or slim? Yes, but in an indirect way. I'll describe the character feeling the pull of a shirt that's too tight or admiring their profile in a mirror. If other characters take note of someone's startlingly blue eyes, then that's great. Someone has to wear thick glasses; readers will know about it because of the limitations that character faces. How well do they maneuver without the glasses? Ahh...perhaps he/she can function perfectly well and what does this mean? Or perhaps they can't function at all so what happens when the glasses get broken? Is she/he the type to have a spare pair (or maybe more)?

People can't help the way they look (well, in this day and age they can if they have the money, but my WIP takes place 70 years ago). Some people spend their lives blighted by their hatred of their nose; some simply don't give it a second thought. A character may have curly hair; I mention it if she hates it but constantly receives compliments about it. Everyone is initially judged by external appearance, but the story lies in people's internal workings.

Do you ensure readers have perfect photographs of your characters? Is it important? Do you have a different view when you're the reader? For me, inside wins over outside every single time.


  1. I treat it more like you do, Elspeth. Just a brushstroke here and there. I figure that if I provide the basics, my character will come to life more in the reader's imagination than if I'd forced them to think of my character the way I see them. Maybe my character reminds them of someone they know...I'd rather not interfere with a reader's imagination too much.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elspeth - You make such an interesting and well-taken point about the interesting aspects of a character. When I'm reading a mystery, I'm far more interested in what a character's personality is like than in what s/he looks like, unless that's important for some reason. When I write, I do give some physical details, so that readers have something to start with, but I don't belabor it. The point of a character isn't what s/he looks like anyway, most of the time.

  3. I agree with you that inward wins every time. When reading I prefer stories where characters aren't described in physical detail. I can then see them the way I want to in my head. But with both inner and outer descriptions, I want only what's important to the story. If she has a wart on her little toe, I only want to know it because she won't wear the flat sandals her sister gave her. And it ticks off her sister, who decides to kill her because she exchanged her gift.

  4. Shoot, Girl -- I wanna write RIGHT NOW!!

  5. Karen; That's nice to know.

    Elizabeth; That's the trick, isn't it? Let readers have their own pictures; they don't need mine.

    Margot; We seem to be writing from a similar point of departure!

    Carol; That's funny! What a nasty sister!

    Elisa; Ain't I just the biggest pain??? I'm thrilled you had that reaction.

  6. Elspeth what you described is the kind of reading I enjoy - not too much, not too little, but enough to give me a feel and mental picture of the character, both inside and out.

    Both too much and too little detail can definitely get in the way of THE STORY.

  7. Crystal; Without THE STORY, you've got a whole bunch of nothing! Let's hope others feel like you if I ever finish my WIP!

  8. Well said. I think too many authors write their characters skin deep. It's important to make our characters three dimensional without getting carried away, as usual, it's a fine line we walk.

  9. Elspeth, this is so right on. Nothing bugs me more than having a character introduced in a story and the author devotes and entire lengthy paragraph, stopping the story dead, while I get a flull blown "data dump" description of every physical, emotional, spiritual, familial, career, attire, background, aspiration-hope-and-dreams description of the character right down to the butterfly tattoo on his ass. Stephen King has a lot to say about this as well. Better to let the reader "fill in the blanks" and let the attributes of the character come out little by little as the story unfolds.

    Marvin D Wilson

  10. As a reader, I don't want too much description unless it's important to the story. I like to form my own idea of how the character looks (kick-ass heroines should look like me, for instance) as I read. As a writer, however, my first drafts usually overwrite the description and I have to trim the detail during revisions.

  11. Elizabeth; I agree, it is a fine line.

    Marvin; LOL! I'm glad you liked the post and I'm with you in not being a large fan of a 'data dump'.

    Patricia; I agree; all kick-ass heroines should look like you!

  12. I like to give small details so the reader can form their own picture.
    Knowing your character from the inside out is important. When you do, you can more accurately portray them.

  13. I tend to want some description of the character, but not too extensive since I want to have my own vision of the person.

    Straight From Hel

  14. I tend to skim over description in a book I'm reading, so much of the description in my writing tends to be sparse. Vivid imaginations are so much fun :)

  15. I rather see the guts than the fluff of a character, if that makes sense. Don't tell me about he/she let me see that person through their environment, actions and reactions.

  16. Helen, Jemi and Journaling Woman; We share the same opinion.

  17. Inside, inside, inside. That's why I read fiction. It's also why I read nonfiction, and I spend a lot of time telling journalism students not to slap on flattening descriptive tags like "middle-aged," "heavyset," "blonde." I'm always searching for the interesting character quirk, the arresting detail.

  18. Your post and the comments came at the perfect time for me. I am 3000 words into my first novel, and I haven't devoted a single word to descriptions yet.
    Yes, I know exactly how each of my characters looks, but I am not sure I want to go into describing them in detail. Well, one does have a problem controlling her weight, and that will figure in one of the chapters, but I was wondering if I can plunge right in in chapter 10, without ever mentioning it before.
    After reading your post and the comments that followed, I guess I can.

    When reading, I definitely prefer to be able to draw the pen-pictures myself.

  19. Martha; I shall remember that phrase 'flattening descriptive tags'; it's perfect.

    Rayna; Going by the flavour of these comments, I guess you can! Do what feels right.


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