Writing Process – When to Describe Characters in Detail

From personal experience and discussing this with other readers, it used to kind of bemuse me how much people hate detailed physical descriptions of characters. I’ve not been able to pinpoint why, but upon taking this into consideration, I’ve noticed many (but not all) of the best novels I’ve read don’t rely heavily on what a character looks like. It’s usually kept to simple descriptions or notable features, say for instance if they have piercing blue eyes or are unusually thin, but their every freckle and hair won’t be described in detail. It’s just enough to fuel an image for the reader, who will make what they will of what the author’s given them. Not all readers, but many readers, will feel a bit stripped of the chance to stretch their imagination if you describe literally everything about a characters and leave nothing to be visualized on their own.

I’ve come to realize that it’s essentially a form of padding to over-describe someone. Even if the protagonist is romantically obsessed with another character’s beauty, the author as narrator shouldn’t seem like they are. It depends on who you’re writing, however. If they’re vain or nitpicky regarding themselves or others, this could be an exception. But either way, it’s objectively better writing not to churn out swaths of character description when the reader’s just meeting them. Some famous characters are described in little physical detail. A good recent example I’ve read is Andrew Vachss’s Burke character, who is described by the other cast usually as variations of “rough”, “criminalistic”, or even “ugly”, but never backs up any of these with his own voice, which are obviously objective on the other characters’ parts.

With a novel I’ve been working on the past month or so, since it’s a psychological novel that features a protagonist that’s possibly delusional, and nothing looks to be what it is, to work with that in mind, I decided to note only what stood out to the individual character whose speaking. I know, that’s confusing, but say, if one of them looks at a girl and sees long, black hair and pale skin before anything else, and another looks at that same girl and notices the colour of her eyes first, that’s what they’ll describe when they’re speaking. I find this says more about the particular POV when they only notice certain things, or if they notice the person as a whole, or don’t notice what they looked like at all. Like any writing trait, description is to some degree subjective and prone to bias, but overly vivid is not generally considered a positive in fiction. It’s more fit for abstract genres like poetry.

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