When the writer described the hero, the reader recoiled in horror.
Writers like to describe. We like to use metaphors and similes. We like to impress readers with the number of words we know for ‘blue’. “No, dear reader,” we cry. “His eyes were not blue. They were azure. Are you not entertained?”
But sometimes we get carried away. Because the image we see blazing in our mind’s eye is so vivid, we want to ensure that the reader sees exactly the same thing. So, we feel that we have to describe what our characters are wearing. Their boots and buckles, cape and codpiece. Their eyes, how far apart they are, what kind of brown they are, the hairstyle, the shape of the chin. Every time someone enters a room we find ourselves breaking off for three of four lines to describe exactly how this guy wears his beard. Or what shade of green he’s wearing now after his altercation with those orcs in chapter 4 in which gouts of foul viscera ruined his previous wardrobe.
But we don’t need to do this. In fact, we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we micro-manage our reader’s response to the text. We want the reader to focus on the themes and the drama, the plot and the tension, not overload them with so much extraneous detail that they end up fixating on the small things and miss the important, thematic material.
So how much description is too much?
When I think of description, I think of Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness. There’s a point in the novel where the expression on a severed head is described as ‘jocose’. It’s a very precise word, and unusual enough to feel as if it carries a certain amount of power. It’s bold. Yes, it violates the rule that you should never use words your reader may not know – a rule you should ignore, by the way – but it also captures the essence of the expression in a way that no more granular and detailed description ever could.
And this is the magic word: essence.
Constantin Brâncuși was a highly influential modernist sculptor. Many of his works dealt with communicating the fundamental shape of an object. For example, his ‘bird in space’ is recognisable as a bird because of the curvature and the shape of the sculpture. Yet it has no eyes, no feathers, not even wings. Now think about those little ‘m’ shapes we draw to illustrate birds in flight, and how everyone knows that this is a bird, despite a complete lack of detail. It’s the same principle. As Brâncuși said, “what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.”
So when we are about to describe what a character looks like, we should ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this process? Do we want the reader to be able to pick the character out of a police line-up? Well, no. We want the reader to grasp fundamental qualities about the character.
Are they handsome?
Are they sinister?
Are they grotesque?
Are they intimidating?
We can communicate these things easily, and with brevity. If the hero is handsome, simply describe him as handsome, or her as pretty. That’s enough. You can mention their astonishing eyes, or drop other details in later about their phenomenal bangs. But there’s no need to info-dump. All your reader needs to know is, “how do I picture this person?” You’ll be surprised how little info a reader actually needs in order to create a strong image of the character in their mind’s eye.
But we can do better than that. We can be precise without being detailed.
For example, I recently described a main character as ‘sharp-faced.’ Nothing particularly inventive about this, it’s a term that has been used countless times. But we associate a lot of things with it. Immediately, we perceive the character as cold, predatory, cruel, dangerous. Vindictive, even. Because weapons are sharp. Things that hurt us are sharp. Straight away, we have communicated more about the character – their essence as well as what they look like – than a detailed physical description could ever have managed.
We can also reveal much about a character’s appearance in the way they move. Characters who stride or glide are recognised by readers as physically fit and/or attractive, or at least possessing the self-confidence associated with the physically attractive. Then, there is the way other characters respond to them. This too is a way of communicating the visual aspect of a character without having to info-dump on detail. He was stunned by her natural beauty is a much more economical and less overwhelming way of describing face, hair and manner. Handsome enough, she supposed, but weathered by grief and time, tells us more than any granular exploration of eye size, nose shape, hair style.
In short, we can accomplish a lot in a small space. This lets the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps, helping the reader form an attachment to the characters they themselves have had some hand in creating. Also, it lets us focus on communicating the truly important elements of the story. Not what the characters look like, but what they want, why they want it, and what this means.
Which, let’s face it, is the real stuff we want to be writing about, isn’t it?
Keen to hear your thoughts as always, and good luck with your projects.