May 17th, 2017

Does Description Work For Your Reader, or Against Them?

Les Edgerton

 

“When we are told that a Handsome Prince went into a wood, we realize that we are that Handsome Prince. As soon as the prince is characterized, ‘A Handsome Blond Prince with a twinkle in his eye, and just the hint of a mustache on his upper lip…’ and if we lack that color hair, twinkle, and so on, we say, ‘What an interesting prince. Of course, he is unlike anyone I know…’ and we begin to listen to the story as a critic rather than as a participant.”

~ David Mamet from his book Writing in Restaurants

Years ago, in my days of cutting hair, I talked to most of my clients about my work. That was a big mistake—I later discovered that when you talked about the work, especially the current work—that I’d expended the energy of actually writing it that night when I went home and faced my computer.

But, in those days I still hadn’t learned that lesson. What was profitable from those conversations was that I learned something from my readers. Most had read my work, particularly Monday’s Meal, my first collection of short stories. We’d talk about them and I’d answer the usual questions—how did you come up with that idea? did that happen in real life? how come there are a lot of characters who have their hands or fingers cut off?

And then, one day, I noticed in our conversations, very often the person would describe one of the characters in the stories. That’s odd, I remember thinking. I couldn’t ever remember providing character descriptions. It wasn’t because of something someone had told me not to do—I’d experienced little or no writing instruction of advice in those days and wrote purely from an instinctual stance.

I went back to see if I had, inadvertently, provided descriptions. I hadn’t.

So then, I began asking the person I was chatting with if he or she could describe the character in the story we were talking about. Sure, they said, almost to a person, and proceeded to deliver a very detailed, sometimes exhaustive description of the person. And, I began to notice that in these very complex descriptions always there would be a characteristic that belonged to the person telling me the description.

“And where,” I said, “did you get this description from?”

“Why, it was in the story,” they’d say.

“No, it wasn’t,” I said.

I’d open a copy, turn to the story, and ask them to point out where their description came from. Where any character description occurred. They’d skim through it, a puzzled look on their faces, and finally, say, “Well, I was sure I read it.” And then, we’d laugh and go on to other topics.

I think the best way to learn to write well is to read lots and lots and lots. Something I’ve done all of my life. One of the things I’d always thought boring in a novel was when the author described their characters. Especially when they overloaded the details of those descriptions. I knew that my brain switched off at those passages and I’d almost always skip those parts and go ahead. And, usually those kinds of stories were fairly boring to me. At the time, I couldn’t articulate why that was so, I just knew it was.

And, like Harry Crews (who said it first and these days it’s inaccurately attributed to Elmore Leonard by some, who included it in his book on writing and had taken it from Crews) I was always acutely aware of those parts I tended to skip when reading and did my utmost to not provide those parts in my own writing.

And, then, a few years ago, I happened upon David Mamet’s book, Writing in Restaurants, and when I read the quoted passage above, had one of those Eureka! moments.

I didn’t change anything. I didn’t pay closer attention to avoiding character descriptions—that was already finely-honed in me to not do so, but it is always great when you encounter a bona fide writing “authority” that confirms what you’ve been doing is spot on the money. Kind of validates what you’re doing.

How about you? How do you feel about character descriptions? Are you like me or are you the opposite? Are you one who really enjoys the author laying out exactly what the protagonist looks like? If you are, can you say honestly, if upon encountering such a description you begin reading as a critic or remain identifying subconsciously with the protagonist? Or, does it even matter to your own personal experience?

I’d really like to know!

Blue skies,
Les

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About Les

Les EdgertonLes Edgerton is an ex-con, matriculating at Pendleton Reformatory in the sixties for burglary. He was an outlaw for many years and was involved in shootouts, knifings, robberies, high-speed car chases, drugs, was a pimp, worked for an escort service, starred in porn movies, was a gambler, served four years in the Navy, and had other misadventures. He’s since taken a vow of poverty (became a writer) with 18 books in print, including Finding Your Voice and HOOKED.

Three of his novels have been sold to German publisher, Pulpmaster for the German language rights. His memoir, Adrenaline Junkie is currently being marketed. Work of his has been nominated for or won: the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), Derringer Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Spinetingler Magazine Award for Best Novel (Legends category), and the Violet Crown Book Award, among others.

Les holds a B.A. from I.U. and the MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He was the writer-in-residence for three years at the University of Toledo, for one year at Trine University, and taught writing classes for UCLA, St. Francis University, Phoenix College, Writer’s Digest,  Vermont College, the New York Writer’s Workshop and other places. He currently teaches a private novel-writing class online.

He can be found at www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/.

71 comments to Does Description Work For Your Reader, or Against Them?

  • I love this quote: Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. ― Stephen King

    I try to do what he does (admittedly, never as well). Don’t choose the obvious things for description – use details that tell us something about the character. Make a description do double duty.

    I remember his description of ‘The Walkin’ Dude’ from The Stand – I think it’s a good example:

    Flagg is described by Tom Cullen as follows: “He looks like anybody you see on the street. But when he grins, birds fall dead off telephone lines. When he looks at you a certain way, your prostate goes bad and your urine burns. The grass yellows up and dies where he spits. He’s always outside. He came out of time. He doesn’t know himself.”

    He’s in jeans – pants and jacket, and the jacket has buttons on it – you know, smiley faces and stuff. Somehow made it even creepier for me.

    Okay, just freaked myself out.

  • I try to use broad brushstrokes and since I write deep pov, I don’t describe a character unless it’s how *they* would think of themselves, or through the eyes of another character, although my editor says readers want a feel for what the character looks like early on and we go back and forth about how to handle it, and how much.

    That’s the reason so many romance covers have the “half-headless hero” on the cover. Readers want him to look like what they want him to look like, not what a cover artists provides.

  • carrienichols

    As a writer, I struggle with description. Give me pages of dialogue over endless description so I’m probably biased. As a reader, I like a few details and filling in the blanks myself. I still remember reading a romance ages ago and falling in love with the hero and then towards the end the author went into further description about his hair and I was totally thrown out of the story. That’s not how I’d been picturing him for hundreds of pages! I had been picturing the hair color and style that *I* preferred in a man.

  • johntshea

    I describe characters’ appearance as little as possible, except as is necessary for the story. Which is usually very little. But I’ve yet to try the minimalism of SF author John Scalzi, who sometimes does not disclose his protagonist’s gender!

  • Wow! You really have me thinking here. I’m a romance writer and so many romances I’ve read contain complete (and I mean complete!) descriptions of both main characters. I’d never thought before that perhaps those full descriptions took me out of the story or diminished their enjoyment for me. I’ll keep aware while I read. As a writer I struggle to get down all those details and in a fresh way. Hey, maybe I don’t have to struggle so hard.
    Thanks for this awesome post!

  • Thank you for this post. I agree with you that a character’s appearance shouldn’t be described in detail. I don’t provide detailed physical descriptions of my protagonists because I want the reader to have the freedom to imagine. I find myself pulled out of stories that give complete descriptions of the main characters–it slows down the story. Curiously, in some of my writing workshops, I have heard undergrads say the exact opposite. They wanted to know the characters’ eye color and hairstyle; one even said she needed this information in order to relate to the character!

  • I tend to provide very little description of my characters. Like an earlier commenter, I prefer writing dialogue and so focus on that, with just a little character description (one man has a beard, a woman has blond curly hair–not much more than that).

    One of my critique partners complains he wants more character description, but other readers don’t seem to mind. As a reader, I make up what the characters look like long before the writer has time to tell me, so I’m surprised when someone turns out to be short or a redhead.

    A similar issue is setting description. When I hold back on that, readers seem to care more than about character description. So I consciously go back when I’m revising to put in more about the setting. But I don’t do much in the revision phase about adding character description.

    • Good observations, Theresa. Remember always that no one has ever written a book that everybody liked–not gonna happen in our lifetimes! Your post gives me a chance to comment on something–the word “blond.” When it’s used to describe a female, it’s spelled “blonde.” When it’s describing a male, it’s spelled “blond.” Although, in todays world, editors aren’t nearly as skilled or as knowledgeable as they used to be so whatever way you choose to spell it probably won’t get flagged. Our standards have greatly slipped, alas…

  • I certainly don’t do a detailed description. I’m a skipper and apparently you are too. I provide enough about the characters that you get a general idea (Hair color, eye color, short, tall, fat, thin in about two lines, and those are the main characters. You get less for minor and fly bys but you have to fill in the holes 🙂

  • I’m absolutely a “skipper” although just for boring prose. Life’s too short! And, I read an average of 3-4 novels a week and at my age I’m not wasting much time on poor writing. For flyby (love that term!) or walk-on characters I wouldn’t furnish anything in the way of description. Doing so tells the reader that this character is important and will reappear–that’s just the convention of writing. For instance, if a writer has a bellboy appear solely to deliver a telegram. never again to be on stage, then not only wouldn’t I include any -physical description, I wouldn’t even give a brief description of what he’s wearing. Simply the word “bellboy” gives the reader all they need to picture him.

  • Huh. Never really thought about this, but I don’t typically provide character descriptions in my stories. I don’t know why–there just never seems to be a convenient place to put that info. But I don’t mind character description when I read. I don’t have to think of myself as the protagonist to enjoy a story. One of my favorite protagonists is Neil Gaiman’s Shadow Moon, and from a physical standpoint, he’s about as different from me as a character can get!

    • Stacy, I’ve read your work and you don’t describe your characters overmuch at all. One thing I might suggest that is going on is a character like Hannibal Lector. Now we’ve seen the movie so most of us will have the image of the actor, but I don’t think there’s much description in the book–I could be wrong as it’s been many years since I read it.
      But, when you ask people who they liked best in the book, surprisingly Jodie Foster doesn’t get many votes. Most say Hannibal is their favorite character. And, without the film I daresay if you ask those who’ve just read the book that he was their favorite character and the one they identified with. Usually, they’ll act a bit sheepish admitting they liked a “bad” guy, but the reason is they like him because he possesses qualities many of us wish we had ourselves. Namely, he’s a genius and the folks he kills are often reprehensible characters themselves. But, mostly because he’s the strongest character in the story. What I’m trying to say is that the characteristics of a character are what we react to and if it’s a strong character trait, we’ll furnish our own view of what he looks like and solely on his actions. That person usually has a characteristic of quality we admire and we’ll furnish a description in our minds that’s probably more flattering than what the person actually looked like.

  • Laurence Lovan

    I can see the point in not describing the protagonist in detail and walk-on characters at all. But for the antagonist and minor characters, seen through the protagonist’s eyes, shouldn’t there be some description of them?

    • I don’t, Larry, but that’s a call each of us has to make themselves, I think. The one thing I know, is that if you don’t furnish descriptions of characters, the reader will always furnish their own. Their own furnished descriptions usually arrive from the actions each character takes. The only thing I’d suggest is that any description for any character be very brief. If you trust the reader’s intelligence to “get it” I think you’ll be very pleased at how smart they are.

      • johntshea

        True! In a way, novelists are really scriptwriters of a play or movie which the reader stages in his or her head. And the reader is perfectly entitled to recast the characters and even change the story. Story tellers and their audiences have been making such ‘movies’ for thousands of years, mostly long before movies were invented.

  • Mary Bailey

    Your article has been very helpful. I’ve been wondering if my characters needed more description. Now I think they are fine. It’s nice to meet you Mr. Edgerton.

  • Here’s a story you guys might find instructive. When Margaret Mitchell wrote “Gone With the Wind” she had very definite people in mind for her main characters. She even had their pictures on her desk so she could look at them while creating their characters.This is good trivia quiz stuff. For her Scarlet character she modeled her after… ready?… Lucille Ball. Seriously. Ms Ball was a natural blonde in her first movies and considered a gorgeous woman. And who did she see as Clark? You’ll never get this… She had Groucho Marx’s picture on her desk. Of course, De Mille had other people in mind… but those were the people she envisioned while writing her book. Once the movie came out, no one could ever again see these two as anything other than the actors.

  • I was editing a story recently, and the author had spent almost 50 pages describing a day in the life of the character with so much creative imagery, I just couldn’t finish reading it. I struggled to read those pages. I quit the job–I wasn’t being paid; it was more of a favor for a friend. I couldn’t get her to understand.

    denise

  • I feel for ya, dholomb! You just can’t get through sometimes to some folks…

  • Denise, sorry I didn’t see your name and used your handle… only I misspelled it–my bad!

  • I’m an unpublished writer. I’m working on my second novel which is taking forever to finish because I thought that one of the reasons why my first novel hasn’t been published is because I didn’t give enough descriptions. So now I’m using very detailed descriptions which I struggle with. I find it boring to go into detail about appearances. So thank-you so much for letting me know that I don’t have to as detail minded as I’ve been.

    • Rosemary, you may not realize it, but you just described what should be an important litmus test for your mss. If you find something boring while you’re writing it, just imagine how the reader is going to react to the same thing. Here’s something I try to live by–if what I’m writing is intended to be funny, if I don’t smile or laugh when rereading it, it probably isn’t funny. If I’m writing a love or sex scene and I don’t get physically turned on, then it isn’t working. Time to rewrite it until I do laugh or get turned on. In fact, for every single emotion I want the reader to get, if I don’t get the same reaction when I read it, it isn’t working and needs to be rewritten.

  • Hi Les, great to see you here! You were just recently in my thoughts as I lent your book Hooked to a friend. I do not use much character description at all, which was especially fun in my novel THE ART OF FALLING, since it was about s dancer with body image issues. At book clubs I love to ask, “So what does Penelope Sparrow look like?” Then we talk about the fact that Penelope is an unreliable first-person narrator, and as we go through the cast list we see that for one reason or another, there is no one without bias who could describe her. Which ended up being a great jumping off point for discussing body image! Like Laura’s amazing Stephen King example, I think a great use is when the description tells you more about the observer than the observed.

  • Laurence Lovan

    I guess the real question on how much description to give is how important is it to the story? Is it important to know the protagonist’s sex, age, physical handicaps, physical appearance, eye color, etc.?

    • I don’t see any hard-and-fast rules, Larry. Basically, my own writer’s instinct is to almost always err on the side of less description. I think that in many ways today’s readers are more sophisticated than in past ages. For instance, a book like Moby Dick wouldn’t get published these days. Why? Well, the first third of it was describing whales in minute detail. That worked at the time simply because just about everybody knows what a whale looks like, sounds like, what they eat, what waters they live in and so on and so on, simply because we have the Discovery Channel and ten thousand other resources which readers in Melville’s day didn’t. That change is evident in a million other things that used to warrant description. We simply have been exposed to vastly more information. When I was a kid, for example, divorce was very rare. In the town I grew up in, Freeport, Texas, I only ever knew of one family that experienced a divorce. Which means a novel then might have a number of pages describing a divorced couple. Today, all that would be used to describe such a relationship would be to simply state they had divorced. We don’t require anything else. Besides witnessing divorces all around us, we’ve been treated to a million books and movies and TV shows.

  • I just shared your piece with my critique group, Les, because they constantly want to see more description in my stories and I tell them I only want to present information the characters are paying attention to. Further, there are forms of description that can be telling without foreclosing the reader’s ability to provide his/her own character image. For example, a look on someone’s face when they think they’re alone or how a woman plays with her hair. You don’t have to say what color the hair is, but if she’s constantly fusing with it or a man is biting his finger nails, it tells readers something important about that character.

    • Peter, the reason often readers in a critique group advocate things like this is because this is something they were taught in high school or college. The problem is, most writing instruction comes from people who are just parroting back what they were taught. And description as a technique or element often comes from older models where it was used much more than it is today. Too often, teachers get kind of lazy and don’t keep up with what’s happening in fiction currently. The really good teachers do keep up. but they seem to be in the minority, alas… Think back to your own classes. Were you ever in a class where most sessions consisted of the teach talking for 5-10 minutes about, say, description and then gave the class an exercise that took up most of the hour? Hold your hand up if that sounds familiar… It’s just plain easier to run a class like that than to actually teach something. Not trying to diss all teachers–I would guess that a really good teacher is behind lots of us becoming writers. But, I’ll also bet that great teacher you remember didn’t give a ton of exercises to do while she did what she really wanted to do–sit behind her desk and read a novel…

  • Fae Rowen

    Thanks for a thoughtful article, Les. The first writing classes I took passed out volumes of character worksheets for recording everything from hair color to fingernail length to preferred brand of butter. I just couldn’t force myself to fill them out. For one thing, I knew I’d forget someone’s eye color, preferred breath mint, or shoe size. Unless a detail matters—who cares a pre-school friend, unless that person is pivotal in the plot—, I tend to leave descriptions out. However, all of my characters have one defining detail. It might be an unusual scar on a cheek, a single color of clothing, or a favorite saying. I can remember one thing about each character. And that one piece of description ends up being important to the story.

  • I’m a big fan of the idea of the fourth protagonist (which I learnt about in a workshop DVD with Bryce Courtney but which may have come from else where). The reader already brings so much with them that there’s really no need to describe everything and in fact is just slows things down.

    I write YA and so read a lot of YA. I know this sounds bad but I was one of the chubby, picked on, girls at school. If the writer describes the main character as being slim and pretty I instantly like her less. I don’t care if she sacrifices everything for the good of mankind or to save a three legged dog, I’m already not a fan because I instantly see her as a potential bully. (I know, I have issues).

    I hope you don’t think I’m being rude but when I read your bio at the end and then put that together with the phrase, ‘In my days of cutting hair’ I had to laugh. Talk about trampling on my preconceptions. 😉

    • LittleMissW, Right on! If the writer hadn’t provided a description, you’d have supplied your own and by doing so vastly enjoyed the book that was ruined for you by that description.

      Yeah, cutting hair.. That was a trade I picked up in the joint and it literally saved my life by giving me a trade I could make a living at. If I hadn’t learned how to cut hair I’m positive I would have gone back to holding up places. As it was, when I was released on parole, I had my pick of jobs and in my first week took home $500 which was really good money in 1968.

      • That is flipping amazing money in 1968. You must be fast and phenomenal at hair!

        • I was pretty good. Won 16 state championships and one national title. Was the leading platform artist for Clairol. My styles were on the covers of Gambit Magazine and Touts. Wrote three books on styling and the business of styling. That $500 I mentioned? That was my first week and it went up considerably after that. Managed several top salons, including Snobs and Busta at the Fairmont in New Orleans. When I left the business about ten years ago, my haircut price was $100 and we allowed half an hour for a cut. But, I had a shampoo girl and she shampooed the client and blew them dry. I did just the cut, so was able to do four clients an hour. I NEVER worked for a place like “Curl Up and Dye”–only the top salons in the country.

  • Best author bio ever! 🙂 I don’t usually do lots of character description because normally I don’t even have a clear handle on details such as their eye color. Just not important to me.

    • I adore Les’ bio too, Debbie. And I have always had trouble with description as I don’t like to read a lot of it. I like to know where they are, what they’re doing and thinking, but how they look? Not so much.

    • Thanks, Debbie! I worked hard for that bio! And, I’m with you–I skip over much description and if there’s a lot of it, often put that book down–it’s a good sign the author will turn out to be wordy and furnish the reader with “much ado about nothing…”

  • Les, I just approved a few comments so you might want to give one browse from the top. I love seeing all this discussion! It’s so fun to hear what people have to say about description in their own work.

  • I offer scattered description throughout my stories via observations from other characters and dialogue. Also, I prefer reading character descriptions so I can create a clear picture in my head.

  • juliekaye2@bigpond.com

    I like some description early in the story. It’s annoying to put together a character (physically) as you are reading, see them in your head, but then read that they had different coloured hair, or were a lot taller, etc, than you imagined. With no character description at all I feel like I am watching the news when someone is arrested and their face is blurred out. I agree with what Latanya said above. I like to put the descriptions in via observations and dialogue. For example, Early in the story Kain is telling his best mate, Joe, that he has cancer. Joe is a bit of a larrikin, funny bloke. Joe says – “Bullshit! No way. You’re the picture of health. Look at you, nice pearly whites, muscles on muscles and sparkling baby blues.”

    • Good point, Julie and Latanya. Just proof that there will never exist a novel that everyone likes. Some like less description of characters and some like more. All I can do is give the reasons I don’t use much description. I know some readers will like that and some won’t. And, that’s okay. If a writer tries to be something to everyone, he/she will end up being nothing to no one. There is no right or wrong way–there’s just your way. The approach I take to writing a novel is that I write the novel I wish someone else had written… but hadn’t… so I have to write it to be able to read it. And, the novel I want to read won’t have much character description in it. I know that many readers will want more description and I know that many won’t. It doesn’t matter. I write for myself and for those that like the same kind of book I do. I’m a minimalist. I adhere to Hemingway’s idea of good writing–that it be like an iceberg where only ten percent is visible. That good writing supplies the bones and the reader provide the flesh. That a good book requires the reader to participate in it–to furnish some work themselves. Other writers have a different point of view and that’s fine–there’s room for both of us.

  • Due to the advice of other writers and some writing classes, I started describing my characters in more detail … and I decided to stop because I was boring myself with those descriptions. It’s good to have an idea (for myself) but my readers, like yours, probably don’t want to know. I only had one reader complain about not knowing what color hair my protagonist had. I think it disappointed her to find out that the MC in that story was strawberry blonde (not my hair color or hers) – that was just how I pictured her.

    • Hi Tyrean–It looks as if you followed the advice I give my students–when push comes to shove, trust your instincts. People who become writers are almost always people who were avid readers before they began writing… which means you have a finely-tuned critical apparatus in place about what’s quality writing and what’s not. When the little red light begins to go off in your head when you’re considering others’ advice, learn to trust that instinct. Looks like you fall into that group. Kudos!

  • I prefer to give my characters distinct personality traits over description. I find readers stop asking about descriptions, if you do this. I know some writers who make laborious descriptions of every character in advance. I could never do that. I’d be so bored I’d go in into R.E.M. or a coma. 🙂

    • That’s exactly what I do, Wendy. That’s why you never need backstory or setup. How the character acts and reacts tells the reader all they need to know and they’ll apply their own description as well.

  • That’s cool, Les. I appreciate you letting me know. Your bio hit a ball out of the park. I admire your honesty and transparency. Being real and secure in who you are in the good times and the bad times, takes a lot of courage. It also helps others who are struggling with their own demons. Thanks for being real.

  • Great article. I think minimal description is best alright. I’m writing something at the moment where I want to carefully (and early) reveal the detail that the main character has a nose that was broken a long time ago. I think it will give the reader something to build their mental image around, and also help me to show that the guy is a bit battered and worse-for-wear due to his past experiences. All of the rest of his physical features I’m going to leave to the reader’s imagination.

  • Lionel, I’d say you are going to be a successful writer if you aren’t already. A single detail like that tells us volumes about a character and those “volumes” are going to be different for every reader.

  • I enjoyed this article. As someone mentioned above, Stephen King’s advice on describing characters is excellent, especially where he says, “if I describe mine, it freezes out yours”. As soon as a writer describes a character in too much detail, the reader’s own imagination is constrained and they are shut out of the experience. In my WIP I’m trying to describe characters by the way they ‘carry’ themselves, rather than visual descriptions, so readers have an idea of what they are like, but still get to create their own mental image. However, the physical appearance of certain people is important to the plot of my mystery, so unfortunately I need to provide a little more detail in some cases than I would probably want to.

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