4 Ways to Make Readers Instantly Loathe Your Character Descriptions

4 Ways to Make Readers Instantly Loathe Your Character Descriptions

Fiction once began with the face, with the act of observation of the faces of others. Does it still? It’s arguable. I can imagine a skeptic wondering what difference it makes whether writers describe faces or not. Does anything of importance really hang in the balance? Who cares? Does it make any difference to the operations of the world? Who cares about the face anymore? Is reading the face still a survival skill … and if so, for whom?—Charles Baxter in The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

In recent years, a minimalist trend has surfaced regarding character descriptions. Common opinion these days states that physical descriptions are unnecessary, distracting, and even poor writing. “Dickens,” these minimalists claim, “might have been able to get away with a page and a half of in-depth description, but that sort of verbosity is not only intolerable in modern fiction but even retroactively ridiculous.” Having read far too many novelists who abuse and misuse the art of character descriptions, I’m in utter sympathy with whoever decided the character description was passé. But I’m not in agreement.

Most of the fuss over character descriptions is the result of two pitfalls:

1. Clichéd descriptions that add nothing to the characters, but rather render them as caricatures.

2. Inappropriate usage, placement, and emphasis.

Let’s address these one at a time.

1. Clichéd Character Descriptions

The only reason any description deserves to be included in a novel is because it adds something vital to the narrative. A romantic heroine with Barbie-blonde hair and a super-model figure doesn’t add much. Telling readers the bad guy in a western is squinty-eyed, dark-browed, and narrow-lipped does nothing to bring freshness to the story. (Of course, this is a problem that goes much deeper than simply description and probably finds its root in a clichéd character.)

But to take the other extreme and delete description entirely adds nothing either. You can’t put nothing into a story, and expect the reader to gain something.

As readers, we read in order to be told about people other than ourselves. Can our understanding of these people really be complete without some concept of their appearance—and thus how other people perceive them and how they perceive themselves?

2. Inappropriate Usage of Character Descriptions

Character descriptions need not be long; sometimes a single detail can anchor a character more firmly in the reader’s mind than a list of attributes two paragraphs long. Avoid “laundry lists” at all costs. Rattling off a character’s hair color, eye color, height, and weight isn’t going to bring the reader any closer to the character. Strive instead for “telling details” that highlight not only appearance but the character they represent.

As a child, I was fascinated with the phrase “Grecian nose” and felt quite the sophisticate whenever I managed to work it into my stories. Never mind the fact that I had no idea what a Grecian nose looked like. I’m still not sure what it looks like, but I do know it’s a nonstarter as a descriptive aid, not only because it is unrecognizable to most readers, but because it brings nothing to the characterization table.

3. Inappropriate Placement of Character Descriptions

I’ve heard the arguments that suggest readers don’t like authors to describe characters because it interferes with the reader’s preconceived image of the character. But I’m here to tell you that I want to know how the writer perceives the character. However, it’s important to make sure the description is dropped into the narrative early enough to shape the reader’s preconception. Don’t wait until Chapter 15 to tell the reader that the hero is cross-eyed and has red- and green-striped hair.

4. Inappropriate Emphasis on Character Descriptions

The amount of description we give any character needs to be in direct proportion to his importance in the story. Spending two paragraphs on a throwaway character will do nothing but misdirect—and probably frustrate—readers. Outline your minor characters with one or two modifiers, and save your most impressive descriptive powers for the protagonists.

Character descriptions are great fun to craft. When used correctly, they can’t help but hone the cutting edge of your story.

Tell me your opinion: How have you used character descriptions in your story?

4 Ways to Make Readers Instantly Loathe Your Character Descriptions

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks for another great article.

    I like to know at least some basic features about the characters and think that giving salient details at first appearance and then drip feeding description in as you go along is a good strategy. I liked your point about putting the description in early (before the reader forms a definite picture of the character in their mind). One thing I struggle with is providing description of deep point of view characters who obviously know what they look like and, unless very vain or perhaps embarrassed by their looks, are likely to be thinking of other things. Having a character look in a mirror is cliched. This is even harder in short story where there is not a lot of room for description. For instance, this is the start of a short story I’m working on:

    ###
    Anna slammed the stone pestle down into the mortar, her eyes blinded by tears. The afternoon sun beamed in through the open servery hatch and lay in oblong patterns of light across the counter and work benches. Ramshackle shops and adobe houses with thatched roofs squatted in a jumbled heap on the hill beyond the empty street. The woman standing at the shop counter waiting for her prescription shifted the weight of the listless toddler in her arms and sighed.

    Dipping her head, Anna swiped the unshed tears from her eyes with the back of her hand and continued to ground the dried bitterroot into a fine powder. Why was she the one to be sent away and not Nerra? Her older sister was more interested in boys and pretty furbelows the family couldn’t afford than she was in the family’s herbal business. However nimble Nerra’s fingers were with the needle and the loom, it was Anna who, even at sixteen, could recognize the different plants almost as well as Ma and knew how to prepare and mix them. She should be the one to stay. Anna poured the fine powder into a copper bowl. She added in powdered meadowsweet and avocado oil and whisked the mixture together. Once it was blended she poured the potion into a small bottle of green glass and pasted on a handwritten label.

    ###
    I’ve think I’ve conveyed something of Anna’s character and her age but not her appearance (brown hair, brown eyes, short and a little plump etc). Perhaps I could put ‘her brown eyes, blinded by tears’

    How do you overcome this or am I being to particular about this?

    • thomas h cullen says

      The topic is very valid. (This is plus why writers would always be best advised to plan their story as much as it is they feel they can.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice opening! Much more important to get characteristics across at first, rather than descriptions. Some authors will growl about it being out of POV for a narrator to casually mention attributes such as hair (e.g., Anna tossed her long brown hair over her shoulder). But, personally, I have zero problem with that. It’s simple and unobtrusive and isn’t likely to trip up any but the pickiest of writer-readers. You can work height in by describing how a character navigates her world (has to reach for things on the shelf, etc.). But I would just skip eye color, unless it’s particularly pertinent to the plot.

  2. I’ve been told multiple times by critiquers that my writing lacks description. It’s one of my weaknesses. Who wants to stop and describe stuff when there’s a story to tell. I have actually been encouraged to include more character description in my writing (as opposed to none which tends to be my norm). This article is helpful for me to find the right balance so I don’t tip too far and over-correct.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes this is one of those things we have to go back and add *after* writing the first draft, when we’ll have a better idea of how to balance the description with the action.

  3. thomas h cullen says

    Unless character descriptions are in some capacity meant to serve the story, the probable truth is that so many writers include them in for their own personal sake:

    A means to preventing their endlessly having to confirm to themselves in their own mind what their character looks like.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s some truth to that. It’s usually good to go ahead and write the descriptions to get them out of our system. We can always delete them if we determine they aren’t advancing the story.

  4. I like to scatter some descriptive sentences in the first chapter. If the character has long hair for example: “She pushed her hair back from her face” giving the reader a clue she has long hair. Or for eye color: “Her blue eyes sparkled as she scanned the landscape.” Throw in descriptive sentences along with the story. Example: “He smacked his head on the shelf. One of the downsides to being really tall, was that you tend to whack your head on things.” Don’t devote a long section (He had green eyes, black hair and always wore a T-shirt and shorts. He was really tall.) To describing the character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good job! However, it is important to stay in POV when describing a character. If the POV character is describing the color of her own eyes sparkling that could be enough to pop readers out of a seamless reading experience.

  5. I have a legit problem with character descriptions because I started out writing fanfiction as a kid and you get FLAMED if you do a laundry list description of your character. Thus, since it was beaten out of me as a teen, I have to remember to even add a character’s physical appearance when I write my novels. I admit for my first book I cheated a little with my character looking in the mirror as she got ready to go to work, but it’s not even a paragraph long and it advances her character by giving an example of her voice and the fact that she looks awful from lack of sleep. I made sure for my next two books to make it a more natural introduction. Otherwise, yeah, I agree that you have to know how to weave character description into the story, or else it derails the reading experience.

    My favorite bad example will always be Laurell K. Hamilton, who devotes entire 20-sentence paragraphs to describing every single character, regardless of if they are a major or minor character, and she still subscribes to the food descriptions to describe people of color (the few that there even are in her novels). Take a drink if she calls someone “exotic” or describes their ethnicity as being a “flavor.” Ahhh, gotta love horrible PNR/UF/erotica.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I gotta admit, the “mirror” technique is a lot more forgivable when the character looks bad. :p

  6. I like to describe characters through action:

    Heedless of the hot wind tearing at his Brooks Brothers jacket, Roger Deskin leaned against the parapet. Forty floors below, the Madison Avenue pedestrians crawled through the city’s murderous iron-and-sulfur stink. Bound for nowhere, come from nowhere. Bugs swarming to feast on a rotting apple.

    He couldn’t breathe down in the office. The roof wasn’t much better, but at least up here he had open sky and the wind in his hair. Up here, he could almost imagine himself someone else. Someone free. If not for his ill-fitting clothes, plastered to his body like flypaper.

    Roger adjusted his waistband, wriggling within the too-tight pants to find a little comfort.

    “Putting on some weight?” {another character asked}

    “They’re cut small,” Roger said. Point of fact, he hadn’t seen his feet in years, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d managed the courage to look in a mirror. He should be wearing a bathrobe, not Brooks Brothers.

    I don’t actually SEE characters when I write (I’m weird, I know, but I have very little visual imagination) so the descriptions are only really there as aspects of characterization or how the POV character perceives the others.

    And if the POV character is familiar with the other characters, then he might not “see” them at all – unless something’s changed or the other character has a striking feature or is otherwise a more-than-usual object of attention (e.g., POV character crushing on another character).

  7. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Great job! When we can seamlessly incorporate visual descriptors into the action of the story, readers will absorb the information without ever tripping over it.

  8. I tend not to describe physical appearance all that much, instead relying on personality and other qualities and letting the reader fill in the blanks. That’s probably because I place more emphasis on personality than anything else in life, and because I also write a truckload of fanfiction, where the character’s description is already known/implied/inferred/whatever else or accessible online.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is yet another area in which it’s important to understand your readers’ preferences. Some genres need less description, others (such as romance) tend to want more.

  9. As a reader, I want to see the character the writer sees. Can’t do that, unless the writer offers some description. So that’s what I try to do as a writer. I’m guilty sometimes of going overboard, and getting into details of clothing that probably don’t advance the story. But that’s why I have an editor. ( – ;

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m the same way. There always needs to be room for imagination to play as well, but I *want* to know what the author envisions.

  10. Honestly? Your post bothered me at first. I love to read and write fantasy and I am used to overly-long descriptions, and I unfortunately tend towards them in my writing. I know that you’re right and too-long descriptions can stop the story and the readers’ interest. So I have tried to curb my description to tasteful amounts, and make them more relevant. Your post is very relevant to me, because I still have to be careful about too much description – especially about my protagonists first appearance in the book. I really get excited there, and it’s just difficult to resist describing them as I see them. But, as others stated here, personality and in-action description can go a long way.

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. I am an auditory learner/processor and don’t have a great visual memory, so I tend to spend more time on how things and people sound than how they look.

    However, one thing that helps me gauge the level of detail is to try to get inside the mind of the point-of-view character for the scene. What would my character notice? What would be important or memorable to them?

  12. I am a young adult writer with my co-author. Here are some character description samples-
    Zane -He was gorgeous with raven hair, bronzed skin that covered a very masculine body with strong muscular arms. His mertail was teal and amethyst scaled and very strong as it propelled him to the ladies. Sea blue eyes

    Leilani-Her hair was unbound and flowing behind her. It was shiny and raven like his with turquoise steaks. Her skin was golden and her tail was turquoise and amethyst. He noticed a birthmark on her left shoulder of a crescent moon in fish scales. Around her slender throat she wore exquisite pearls.
    Her eyes were a deep at the moment as they changed with her moods.
    Cara was also a beautiful woman; She had dark hair and slender build. Her tail was a lovely teal color. Her skin was mocha colored.
    He admired her raven locks that hung past her waist and covered her full breasts. Her figure was tall and slim, but with the right amount of curves he thought with a smile.

    ValkorValkor was tall every bit as tall as Zane, he was well muscled and carried himself like a man use to being fast and agile on his feet. He had shoulder length thick black hair, with a well-groomed bread. Slender eyebrows, elfin shaped ears, and his skin was turquoise blue. But the most intriguing feature was his eyes. They were a golden, and glowed with an inner light.

    Leilani’s twin sister Kaia-She had long raven hair that flowed behind her has she hurried to them. Her skin was golden, her eyes were emerald colored and she had a sprinkle of freckles across her nose that made her appear much younger than she was.

    How do you improve character descriptions so they are simple for the reader when they have my co-author book?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with any of these, as long as they each make sense with the context and within the narrative voice of the observing character.

  13. K.M. , I put descriptions above. How do you write simple descriptions so the reader does not become overwhelmed on reading my co-author book?

  14. Hello there.
    I’m just writing the sequel to my debut novel and I found myself wondering if I should refresh the reader with a few words on the appearance of characters who appeared in the first book. I Googled the question: “Do readers pay attention to the physical description of characters?” and was led to your thought-provoking article.
    When reading a book, I tend to conjure up a vague image of what a character looks like as soon as their name is given (one reason I think names are so important). This leads me to skim-read descriptions at times, which is probably a bad habit.
    My feeling is that readers have their own image of the character by the end of a book, which has developed through how the character reacted to certain events, so do not need any reminder. Would anybody agree with this? And yet a part of me thinks it is worth a few words, especially for minor characters. I liken it to sharpening an image that may have become a bit faded in the time since the last book. Or, as with someone like me, perhaps there needs to be a gentle reminder of what the author actually intended!
    Thank you for the article and also very interesting to read other comments here.
    Kind regards, Peter Buckmaster

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I treat character descriptions the same in sequels as in standalones–just a few pertinent tidbits sown into the narrative.

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