It’s okay, I know I’m fat.
I also know that I see characters described in this way far, far too often. I’ll be honest—once might seem to be far, far too often. Describing what a character looks like is no easier than describing what anything looks like in a way that’s personal, emotional, experiential, and readable. But for me at least—and I know I’m not alone in this—the first rule should be: Less is more.
I tend to be a fairly visual writer myself, more or less describing a movie I’m seeing play out in my head, and there’s nothing wrong with that, at least in terms of getting that rough draft out fast. I’m also far from immune from “casting” my fiction—imagining certain characters as played by specific actors or other real people. This isn’t a bad thing, actually. It can help you keep an image of that character in your mind, even give you ideas for speech patterns or other character cues. But eventually it comes time to really make that character your own, to solidify him, her, or it in your mind as a unique individual. The temptation may then arise to convey that in as much detail as possible in the hope that you and your readers—every last one of your readers—will share a mental image down to the smallest detail.
Readers love that, right?
Elmore Leonard wrote in his rules for writers:
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
You might not necessarily want to be as stripped down in your prose as Hemingway—I know I’m not—but still. Maybe we set that one sentence of Hemingway’s on one end of the spectrum and an exhaustive list of physical attributes on the other.
If you’re really honest with yourself (and I know that’s hard to do) you have to ask yourself, in the voice not of your characters or the actors you hope might one day play them in your HBO series, but in the voice of your readers: “Why do we care about anyone’s eye or hair color or height?” I hope at least you realize that going to the numbers just plain stops your story in its tracks. She was 5’7” tall with auburn hair cut 1.3” from her shoulders and stood on size 10 feet . . . Now I feel like I’m being asked to do a math problem, or worse: remember this stuff for later.
In “How to Write Kick-Ass Character Descriptions” Meghan Ward wrote:
No matter how creative you get, describing a person according to his or her hair and eye color is A) Lazy B) Boring C) Ineffective D) Not memorable. Really—does telling you a woman has brown eyes and frizzy black hair give you ANY sense of what she looks like? Does it reveal anything unique about her that doesn’t apply to 500,000 other people? Does it reveal anything about her character? Nay, nay and nay. And adding an age doesn’t help much either.
I even have to ask: “Why do we care that this guy is tall, she’s stocky, or someone else is left-handed?”
Rachel Scheller tackled this in “11 Secrets to Writing Effective Character Description”:
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds.
And here’s why:
Your readers want to cast the “movie” themselves.
When I read Robert E. Howard, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t Conan, I am. I want to be a part of the stories I read, and we have to remember not just as readers ourselves but as writers that reading itself is a creative act. I’ve cautioned you to give your readers the benefit of the doubt in terms of dialog and what characters don’t have to say, what body language and “business” can convey, and the same, at least, holds true of what these people look like.
It’s not about the laundry list, about the procedural description, about a detailed dossier on each character—good, well-crafted fiction is about a shared emotional experience.
Here are a couple of great examples of how much—or how little—you really need, both sourced from “Great Character Descriptions from Science Fiction and Fantasy Books” by Charlie Jane Anders and Mandy Curtis:
He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.
—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth—tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse Five
Okay now, that having been said, just this morning I read a story from one the students in my Horror Intensive course in which we’re given the exact height and weight of the first person protagonist and it was not just fine, it was outstanding. In that precise moment in that precise character’s life in that precise story it was precisely appropriate.
So as with all rules, heed this warning against detailed physical description only until you decide against it—and only with the same precision I saw this morning.