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. Great, informative, and spot on stuff here.

    And the “Wordplay” logo at the top is very cool.

    Mike

  2. Wow. My humble blog is always honored whenever you stop by!

  3. Funny how passe becomes trendy becomes passe in cycles.

    I’ve been an avid Sci-Fi and Fantasy and Western reader (with a bit of Mystery thrown in) and just lately transformed into a writer.

    As a reader, I love getting a description early on so I can envision the character.

    Your points make sense – a late description bothers me, because I’ve already imagined the character as portly with jet-black hair, and now I read that he’s pole-thin with a carrot top.

    No description is bothersome too because the reader has to imagine the character in their entirety. Too much of nothing can distract from getting ‘IN’ the book.

    As a writer now, I’m always wanting to ‘paint my canvas’ with the characters in the action. Your first quote offended me, as both a reader and writer. Characters matter, and their descriptions can add depth and dimension to them.

    Often I find myself in a public place now, examining the people who walk by or are eating at the restaurant, and compose a character sketch on them – are they secretly a spy family? Under the Witness Protection Program? Will they go home to find their home burglarized or burned down? Is the dad a professor of theology at the local seminary, hanging onto his job by a thread? Or a mechanic who discovers a bomb under the car he’s working on?

    It is a fun game to play, bet you sometimes play it too…

  4. Charles Baxter, who I quoted at the beginning of the post, is actually arguing in favor of descriptions. His essay on “Loss of Face” is very thought-provoking, as is his entire book. I’d certainly recommend reading it.

  5. I agree with your that it is critical that the writer gives the reader a clear description of her characters. I love the talent that you have doing this.

  6. Thank you. You’re very kind. 😀

  7. Looks like this post was an attention grabber, Katie!

    I’ve had folks say I don’t describe enough, and some have said I describe too much. I’m trying to get more subtle and imaginitive with my descriptions, but I’m simply not good at it. At least I’ve moved beyond writing paragraphs devoted to description.

    Good post!

  8. Well, you’ll never please everybody… so you might as well try to please yourself. I always pay attention to what descriptions work for me in other authors’ works – and then attempt to duplicate the same effect in my own writing.

  9. I’m one of the people who say you need to describe your characters and do so in the first couple chapters. In doing so, it adds so much more depth and realism to the whole story. Plus as I read a book I appreciate knowing what the writer wanted his characters to like.

  10. Yep, I too prefer to see the author’s vision, as much as possible, instead of my own. I’ve always enjoyed detailed character descriptions of the Dickensian nature – although I know better than think I can mimic Dickens myself!

  11. Great! You communicated your point most effectively.

  12. Thanks for reading!

  13. To me – Grecian nose – not much indent from forehead to top of the nose (Scott Bakula). I much prefer simplicity. For a title character (heroine or hero) I like a few details like hair color and is it cropped or long, eye color (dark or bright blue?), stature (weave it in, don’t plop it all in one paragraph). I don’t want it to read like it’s a police file. For other characters, I prefer a few words like “pinched and agitated,” “flushed and portly,” or “superior-like snobbery” … and then weave a few other characteristics if you have to. The rest I can – and prefer to – imagine on my own.

  14. When all is said and done, a book is a partnership between writer and reader. The writer gives the reader the clues, and it’s up to the reader to fill in his own unique perspective of the story. The tricky part for the writer is figuring out the *right* clues.

  15. Anonymous says

    A grecian nose (just in case you wanted to know) is one that moves smoothly from forehead to tip in a sloping line with no dip. Like this:
    https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&tok=95IpX3RUd4ATToNcD5dd6A&cp=9&gs_id=y&xhr=t&q=grecian+nose&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&biw=1280&bih=820&wrapid=tljp1336325749960016&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=gLamT5HTLIn8ggf_2YXHAQ

    It also gives the conotation of beauty, elegance, and wisdom, in a more classical sense. However, in most cases, unless you’re making a specific point, this is a horrible way to describe a nose – unless, like I said, you’re making a point. Historical fiction is a great time to do this. So is it fine when describing the face in a painting, or trying to compare someone who lives forever to something ancient and exciting. It’s all about audience, relevance, and intention. Really, no description is a bad one. It’s whether the timing and context are right or not. Also, as a reader, you should still be willing to look up some things if you don’t know what they are, ESPECIALLY if you want to be a writer. No research or thought while reading+too much judgement=no business writing yourself. Don’t get on a high-horse; I think it’s safe to say readers don’t like that, and it’ll come out in your writing, or if not there, your marketing and interviews after the book is published!

  16. Well said. Our focus should always be on the needs of our readers. If our descriptions aren’t serving them, they’re not doing their job.

  17. Jenny Marie says

    Great and true. Another thing to note is that characters of color probably shouldn’t be given a lengthy description of their skin tone if the white characters are not given the same about their skin. It exoticizes PoC and also, by only giving these PoC these descriptors, it assumes White as the default of, well, people, and everyone who isn’t white is an “other.” Though I do think both should be given description of their color or ethnicity, it’s about doing justice to both PoC and White characters.

  18. I agree. When a story is populated primarily by characters of one race, writers can sometimes focus on the fact that a character of another race is different, to the point that this sole difference is given undue emphasis. However, as a reader, I do appreciate it when a writer states upfront that a new character is of a specific race, rather than just hinting at skin tone (coffee-colored, etc.), especially in a story in which I wouldn’t otherwise have any reason to immediately visualize the character as being of a different ethnicity than other characters in the book.

  19. Good stuff. I find genre also matters–inevitably I write too little description for my beta readers who write ROMANCE, I think because romance has such need for aesthetics, where my mystery and suspense readers think I do it about right. (which is good, as that’s what I’m writing). I really hate straight descriptive lists–When I get it in there, I try to do it as contrast (compared to this other character) or change. The narrator can notice others, but TELLING THE READER needs to make sense in the context of the story (so newly met people may get a bit more description than somebody she’s known who it makes no sense for her to be describing)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, milieu definitely matters. It’s great (I would even say important) to have beta readers who are not your genre’s readers. But it’s also important to have betas who understand the needs of your genre and can guide you to improving upon them.

  20. In the beginning paragraphs of my first chapter I start first by letting the reader know where we are, the weather, why we’re there, and a minor detail about my character (usually tied in with the weather), for example:

    The sun was already hot.
    Lance sighed and tugged his mustache. He was hidden in the branches of a peppermint tree at the side of the road, waiting.
    Two more travelers had passed over his curious trap without even noticing it.

    We are in Candyland, it’s morning, we are by a road, and Lance has a mustache.

  21. Recently I realized some of my cutest characters qualify as furries. Some fans like furries. I am exploring how to incorporate this new understanding into my work. Carefully crafted character descriptions are vital so at future conventions people can accurately cosplay my furry characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As in pets?

      • No, they are not pets. The Risirid people are the inhabitants of a different world. In addition to being smart, talented, and skilled, the protagonist thinks the one he calls Amy-Ann is especially cute. She is covered in camouflage colored fur (as are all Risirid), has doe-eyes the color of a verdant meadow, expressive fox-like ears, and the same body temperature as a dog. Cuddling with her on cold nights is especially pleasing.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Ah, gotcha. Fantasy creatures definitely require a little more description than your average human.

  22. thomas h cullen says

    To communicate Croyan’s affection for Mariel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Once of the best aspects of character descriptions is that they’re actually able to convey as much, if not more, about the narrating character as they are about the character being described.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Thank you – semi-relates back to when I spoke about Croyan’s specialness transcending his role in the present situation.

        In narrating this, I dug as deep as it possibly is for a human being to emotionally dig.

  23. I do not like this new trend of leaving out character descriptions. I go through the whole book waiting to figure out what the person looks like. It draws me out of the story and irritates me. I don’t feel like they’re a person. I don’t need a huge description, but I’d like to know something that makes them unique. I’ve read several books where they have left out any description or they threw in that they had brown hair in the last few chapters.

    I’m not of the crowd that pictures themselves as the main character. I know some have used this argument. I may be weird and alone in this, but I read the book to know the character and all that goes with it, I don’t read it to become them.

    Also, in descriptions I despise when they say oh he looks just like Tom Selleck. Or she has a wide mouth like Julia Roberts. Or anything of that sort. Leave real people out of it!

    In my own writing I try for balance: necessary description, but not too much, and not in a way that feels like I’m reading The Babysitter’s Club (loved those books as a kid). You know, chapter 2 was always introducing the main characters. Their likes, hobbies, typically outfits, and appearance. One paragraph per character. I could probably quote that chapter still today.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I remember reading a YA book (from the ’70s) that described a character as a cross between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Not only did it pull me right out the story, but I still had no idea how to envision the character. /facepalm

  24. In my first novel, I couldn’t wait to describe the villain. (I adore bad guys.) I was so overeager, I couldn’t put the brakes on at all, and wrote the following (maybe one reason why this book was never published):

    It is, of course, both rude and silly to decide you don’t like someone just because they’re ugly. After all, there are lots of wonderful, warm, friendly people in the world who just happen to look like warthogs. The cousins knew this. But they still couldn’t help taking a step backward when they saw the spectacularly odd-looking woman who was standing in the doorway. One of her eyes stared past the children, while the other seemed to be gazing somewhere back over its owner’s left shoulder. On her head was an ill-fitting wig made of black hair pinned up in complicated loops and braids. She wore a robe embroidered all over with dragons, and a pair of pink slippers with bunny heads on them. Long ropes of beads hung around her long neck, and her long arms waved in the air like the legs of an insect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with this description. It’s detailed, but brief and introduced with a nice personal touch from the narrator.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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

  30. 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).

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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!

  35. 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?

  36. 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.

  37. 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?

  38. 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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