Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Short Hair Mean, Long Hair Kind

To what extent do you use physical attributes to communicate your characters' personalities to the reader? As I polish away, it occurs to me that there's a whole world of cliché just waiting to be drawn on as I give my villain a scar and a sharp suit, and my heroes spectacles and a limp.

Reading Stephen King's On Writing recently, I was pleased to find that I'm not alone in disliking exhaustive descriptions of main characters, especially when it comes to what they are wearing/driving/scrubbing with in the shower. I have deliberately kept such details to a minimum, but I know that many writer's feel differently.

If there's one thing that always make me want to close a book and go and do something interesting instead, it's being given precise details of a character's height and weight. Why on earth would I be interested to know that Guy is 170lb and 6 foot 2 in his socks? If he isn't a boxer or a reject astronaut, such dry statistics give me nothing. If the writer is trying to let me know that Guy is a big, healthy chap, then surely there's a more interesting way. And as for the calibre of weapons or a car's horsepower – please spare me. The most important thing about a gun is that it frightens or kills people. The rest is distraction.

In my writing, for now at least, I describe my characters only by dropping rare details into the text as and when they seem relevant, and the result is a great deal of freedom for the reader's imagination. It might be my background as an illustrator that makes me do this, as (ironically for someone who is used to depicting fiction characters) I've come to see that readers would much rather do the illustrating themselves, in their heads, without being spoon fed.

How do you approach this? Do you let the reader know about every mole on your hero's neck? And would you ever use a decimal number as a synonym for a pistol? Or would you ever not? And are you brave enough to let your heroine roam through an entire novel without ever revealing the colour of her hair?


  1. I've read two conflicting opinions on character description recently: one saying you need to give detail or else it looks like you're writing from your own perspective and not a character's at all, or don't give detail and let the reader imagine. Personally I'm for the latter unless there's a specific reason for revealing characteristics relating to the plot. I like imagining the characters: I like superimposing past personal enemies onto villains and having a hybrid of all my acting/literary greats for the protagonists! Reading's fun! One or two key details is fine but I hate being gived bucket loads of info, that stuff just makes me think of film noir with voice over!

    Great post!

  2. It may be a matter of style or personal preference. Since I'm writing in the noir style, I like to give snapshot descriptions, from my protagonist's POV. Sort of like the film noir with voice-over:)

    But certainly not height and weight. That sounds like police jargon.

    Maybe it's my journalistic background, but I'd rather say, he was carrying a .45 than just a gun. It gives the reader an image. A gun could be a sawed-off shotgun, for all we know, or an air pistol, maybe even a semi. My fear level is much higher over an assault weapon than a BB gun.

    And no, I would never let anyone roam through a novel without coloring in their hair. Hair color says a lot. Thinning, grey hair says, the character is probably not young. Bleach blond conjures up a different image than say, mousy brown or bright red.

    Description shows more than just physical appearance. It can tell a lot about the character. As in real life, we assess people, first, by the way they present themselves. It's human nature.

    Then again, too much is overwhelming. I read a novel once where the author described every outfit her protagonist wore down to her panties. Each room, every decorating detail. It was so distracting and this was a best-selling novelist. I think she was trying to show how stylishly fussy the woman was, but it was overdone.

    So, too little, too fuzzy. Too much, well, too much. But then it's subjective, like everything else. I think my response is longer than your post;)

  3. I'm with you on this one - long, detailed descriptions of appearance never, I find, give me much of a mental picture of a person. They just slow up the story. Slipping details in as you go is much nicer.

  4. Thanks, rachel. that's an interesting point about the reader needing to know that they aren't reading about the writer. I hadn't thought of it that way.

    Oh, and please don't worry about typos -- it's a long time since I gived a damn about those:)

    Terry, I agree that it's a question of personal style, although more than that it's also a matter of genre. I can see that noir requires a different approach, and probably even the weight thing wouldn't bother me if it fitted.

    As for the guns, the truth is I couldn't write about them in anything other than a vague way because I'm pretty ignorant about them. In my book people wave hand guns at kids, and that bald fact seems pretty scary to me. I'd have to do research to go further than that, so .45 doesn't give me much of an image.

    I suppose the fact that Im writing from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old clean-living boy from London means I can get away with being vague on weaponry.

    Simon, thanks for commenting. I really am reading now, I promise:)

  5. Unless someone writes incredibly well long descriptions are a turn-off for children. They want action - or so they tell me.
    I know nothing about guns and I do not want to know unless it happens to be relevant to the story - and most of the time it is not. I like to know a little about the person's appearance. It might be relevant that they are grossly under or over weight for height or that they have blue eyes when the rest of their family is green or brown eyed.

  6. Sorry Terry - not at all meaning to diss your genre. I like noir if it's where I'm looking for it but I no more want noir in my cornflakes than I want Harry Potter in my Solzhenitsyn - except that now I've declared that, it all sounds rather interesting and I feel the need to try some...cornflakes anyone?

  7. I think I usually mention hair color, but I try to be pretty sparse with physical details. I just don't think it matters that much. Too much physical description (especially after the first few pages) just messes with the image I have in my head. Plus, as you know, I write MG and long descriptions are boring.

  8. Not to worry, Rachael, it made me laugh, really.

    Thomas, I see what you mean, cultural differences as well as genre.

  9. Yes, and I shouldn't have been so quick to judge, Terry. Sorry if I sounded pushy. There's room for every approach in literature.

    Have you read Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr? these are the last noir novels I read, and frankly, while great stories, they were a bit too brutal and, well, noir for my liking. I like that you describe your writing as 'light noir'. You might get me to try again.


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