It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
I decided to forgo this month’s optional question, because I’ve already talked about my reading preferences in several previous posts. Instead, I want to concentrate on character descriptions.
Many writers describe their characters in exhaustive details. Some put a character in front of a mirror. Others make those descriptions from the omniscient author’s POV. The best, especially in romance novels, use another person and describe the heroine as seen through his eyes. But is any of it necessary?
Let’s talk about the mirror scene. How often do you stand in front of the mirror to brush your hair and think: my blond hair is curly and my blue eyes twinkle? I would guess the answer is never. Well, maybe once, before your prom dance.
Besides, what does it matter? How does your blond hair affect your life? It doesn’t, except for one possible scenario: when you’re an actress, going for an audition, and the role demands a blonde. But even then, you could use a wig, right?
Other writers, not just me, care about this aspect of fiction writing. In their joined blog, two bestselling authors, Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, touched on this topic very convincingly a few months ago.
Bob: One thing I have a hard time with is character descriptions. It’s not like we’re writing a personal ad. I like to keep any physical description to one line at most. Beyond that, I prefer to let the reader come up with their own mental image from what the character says and does.
Unless there’s something specific and different about the character I don’t care what they look like. Which is interesting, because if you think about a movie, casting is everything.
Jenny: I don’t care about physical descriptions at all, and I’m skeptical that readers do, since they tend to design the characters in their minds as they read. I wrote a character with a mustache once, and I got letters that said, “In my version of this book, Jake does not have a mustache.” Won’t make that mistake again.
Jenny: Eye color has had exactly zero impact on my life. Why do I need to know what color my protagonist’s eyes are?
The need to describe a character only arises when the outer parameters of a character affect the story. In the latest T. Kingfisher’s fantasy novel, Paladin’s Strength, the heroine is a big and strong woman, and her size makes a difference to the story. Some of her actions would’ve been impossible if she were a dainty waif, so the description makes sense. And to answer the inevitable question, the author described her through the second protagonist’s eyes. No mirrors.
Lately, I’ve stopped describing my characters, unless it is somehow related to the story. In my short story included in the upcoming IWSG anthology, Dark Matter: Artificial, I didn’t describe my protagonist because her eye color or hair length have “zero impact” on my story, just as Cruise said.
Do you describe your characters? What method do you use? Why is it important to you? Tell me in the comments.