Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Talking Shop: Character Description • By Eric Dontigney

Description is a tricky beast for all fiction writers. That goes double for character description. We’ve all read that book where the characters are described in such exacting detail that we’ve lost the thread of the story by the time the writer wraps it up. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those books with characters so thinly described that they only exist in our imaginations as ghostly specters with one or two defining characteristics. While you can argue that there is no Right level of description, I’m in the camp of people who believe in a minimalist approach to character description.

Readers will fill in a lot of details without your assistance. Let me prove it to you.

Sandy and Paul sat at the table and chatted while they waited for their pizza. Paul idly played with the red pepper and parmesan shakers that sat on the checked red tablecloth.

In those two sentences, I gave you a wafer-thin description. Yet, I bet you conjured up a pretty clear image of the table the two of them were sitting at. I suspect some of you imagined a four-legged table, while others imagined a pillar table. I didn’t describe the chairs at all, but I expect some of you pictured slat-backed wooden chairs. Others probably imagined those aluminum piping style chairs with the vinyl seat cushions. I only mentioned the shakers, but I bet you imagined those squat glass shakers with the metal tops. Did you see the napkin holder in your mental image? Maybe a waiter in the background talking with other customers? Were there booths? Did you see bright lighting or was it a low-key place with mood lighting?

My point here is that you can imply and let people’s imaginations fill in a lot of the details. Unless those details are crucial to the story, there is no reason to expend paragraph upon paragraph describing them. The same holds true when you’re dealing with character descriptions. Yes, you need to provide some details. You don’t need to paint a picture so detailed that the reader sees exactly the same character that you see. In fact, it’s counterproductive if you do. Letting the reader fill in some of the details helps them invest in the imaginative process. So, what kind of details do you need?

You need the obvious stuff. Are they male or female? Tall or short? Athletic, average, going to seed? As a rule, most people will toss in a few other salient details like eye color, hair color, and identifying marks. Does your character have a prominent scar? You should mention that. Do they wear their hair long or short? Sure, toss that in. Once you get beyond those kinds of details, though, you risk impinging on the reader’s ability to layer their own ideas onto the picture you’re drawing. Instead of going into extensive detail, give the reader a direction.

You can say something like: “He was handsome in a rough-hewn way,” or “She had a dancer’s body.” Rough-hewn and dancer’s body will mean different things to different people, and that’s where the magic lies. They can imprint their version of rough-hewn or dancer’s body onto the frame that you’ve built for them. Suddenly, they become the reader’s characters, instead of your characters. While it’s not enough on its own to keep readers invested, it’s one way you can invite readers into the creative process and get a little more of their psychological buy-in with the story.


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Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at

SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!



~brb said...

> You need the obvious stuff. Are they male or female?

Ooh, you're gonna get hate mail for that!

Eric Dontigney said...

Yup, I expect you're right about that. Although, on balance, the vast majority of characters probably do still fit into the binary.

~brb said...

Seriously: there's a thing about doing character description that I have seen in so many stories, I think it must be taught in Creative Writing 101 or something. This is when the p.o.v. character, having begun the story with the opening scene, then happens to pass before a mirror (or a piece of shiny metal, or a shop window, or a reflective pool of water or whatever) en route to the next scene, whereupon the story comes to a COMPLETE STOP while the p.o.v. character spends the next 250 words examining their reflection and delivering an excruciatingly complete exposition on their own physical appearance and how they feel about it.

This is an amateurish gimmick. Don't do it.

Álex Souza said...

I agree with this take. It's what Neil Gaiman says in his MasterClass (not that I am endorsing MasterClass. I don't btw). If you use one or two adjectives on a noun (say, "a big, wooden door") you're inviting the reader to imagine that door. Describe the noun in detail and you kinda make it all less fun.

I just wanted to add that I like describing alongside with the action, e.g., "she punched his bony face" instead of "He had a bony face. She punched it." I don't know if someone named this technique, but I call it active description.

Also, there was a story that succesfully did what Bethke just told not to do. It was about conjoined twins, and only one of them is a zombie. I saw that example in Writing Excuses and can't remember the title though.