When it comes to describing their characters, writers use a lot of little tricks and techniques to tell you what they look like. They might have someone comment about their looks, or have the character catch a glimpse of him or herself in the mirror and “reflect” on what they see, or simply offer a brief description. But most authors do take the time to provide a visual description.
The most unusual technique I’ve seen was by a French writer who gave a description as an aside. For example he might write: “Detective Walker – mid-forties, tall, thin, black hair with a touch of gray, pressed dark suit with his badge clipped to his coat pocket – strode into the room and looked down at the body of the deceased…” While this is unusual, and a bit distracting at first, it does provide a snapshot of the character – without a lot of wasted effort. I typically recommend avoiding anything that interrupts the flow of the story. But I was surprised how quickly I accepted this technique. After the first few times it really wasn’t a distraction at all.
While it’s best to work the descriptions into the story as seamlessly as possible, it can become a challenge at times, especially for writers who have recurring characters. You want to provide enough information about the recurring characters so that if a reader starts out of sequence, on book three for instance, he’s still provided enough description to see your characters. But you don’t want to bore your dedicated readers who already know the characters because they’ve read the previous books.
In her “alphabet series” Sue Grafton gives detailed descriptions of her recurring characters and locations so that you can pick up any book in the series and not be at a loss as to what anyone looks like. Robert Parker, on the other hand, offers virtually no descriptions of his recurring characters in his series. I guess he figures that if you want to be told what they look like, start at the beginning. I was actually introduced to his Jesse Stone series by one of the movies starring Tom Selleck. So now when I read the books I see Tom Selleck, even though the description of Jesse in the books doesn’t match. You might think that would be a problem, but it really isn’t. I already have a picture in my mind of how Jesse looks and that’s what I see.
So that brings up the question – how much physical description should you provide? As a test I read a section of a book to my wife, then asked her to tell me what the characters looked like. She was able to do so with very little hesitation even though there were no physical descriptions in what I read. In the absence of description she simply provided her own. I think in many cases readers do this regardless. So I tend to provide sketches of my characters but not a lot of specific detail. Like a pencil drawing where the lines don’t all connect, but your mind sees the line anyway.
The point of descriptive writing is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” the character. That’s all. This can be accomplished with a few well-placed lines…and you might be surprised by how few. The next time you’re describing what one of your characters looks like, pare it down and see how well you can describe them in as few words as possible. I’ll offer a few techniques for doing this in my next article. In the mean time pay attention to what other writers do. I think you might be surprised how little actual physical descriptions some of them provide.