Good stories are built around great characters. If readers don’t identify or sympathize with your protagonist, they’re not going to care enough to come on your character’s journey.
We writers generally have a picture in mind when it comes to the characters in our books. We know what our heroes and villains look and sound like. Height, build, hair, eyes, accents—it’s all etched inside our brains. As we write, we want the readers to see exactly what we see . . . or do we?
Les Edgerton stated, in an earlier post here at WITS, that giving too much description can actually keep the reader from investing in a character. His theory is that by giving only information essential to the story and letting the readers fill in the blanks with familiar images, the characters become more personal and recognizable.
What happens if we remove all character description?
We bring our own biases and perceptions into the characters we create, often pulling in elements of ourselves and people we know. I was curious to see what readers would do when my own vision was removed from the equation (to the extent that it’s possible), so I did an experiment.
To test my theory I wrote a short story, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins. I left out any physical descriptions or details that might influence how readers would picture the protagonist: gender, religion, physical attributes, ethnicity. I included only a vague idea of age. I kept the language gender-neutral as well.
The story was written in first person POV in a journal entry style, as we have a tendency not to describe ourselves physically in that format. That choice made leaving out those details feel more natural.
At the end of the story, I asked readers to close their eyes and without referring back to the text, picture the protagonist and describe that person to me. I wanted to know who they would see without my words guiding them to build the image.
Though a couple of readers came close to my own vision of the protagonist, no one described the character I’d seen when I wrote the story. Only one person mentioned noticing the lack of description, but indicated that it was not an issue for them.
An equal number of men and women took the time to respond to the question. All but one respondent pictured a male protagonist. To my surprise, the lone respondent who saw a female was a man. This might say more about societal expectations and bias rather than that of the individual readers.
What did the readers tell me?
Beyond the near unanimous agreement on gender, the descriptions covered a wide spectrum.
- People guessed the age of the musician as anywhere from mid 30s to late 50s.
- Body types varied from thin to chunky, but most everyone saw pale skin and dark hair with at least a tinge of gray.
- A couple of people admitted to seeing themselves, and a few even scoured the internet and provided images matching their vision.
Though I had only asked for a physical description, many people responded with emotional descriptions as well. Two readers even built a back-story for the protagonist. I don’t think I could ask for a closer reader connection than that.
What have I learned from this experience?
- My first take away is that sometimes less really is more. Trying to force my image of the character into the mind of the reader may push them away rather than bring them closer.
- Removing all description is extremely difficult, and not always practical. There may be certain physical details that are required for the story to work.
- The big lesson is to TRUST THE READER.I have a tendency to over-describe or over-explain because I fear people won’t get the idea. Believe me, they get it.
While the physical descriptions from the readers often differed from my own vision, the emotions described didn’t, and emotions are what our stories are all about.
This experiment had a profound effect on me as a writer.
Telling a story is about taking the reader on a journey, not just getting them to a destination. Never again will I attempt to spoon-feed the readers information. Instead, I’ll leave more to their imagination so they can fill in the blanks with familiar images. I want them to have a personal experience with the characters I’ve created. Building in too much detail can create a brick wall that blocks their view of the story.
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma and Catching Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room and Treble in Paradise: A tale of Sax and Violins (Treble is free on Amazon for the next few days).
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21 inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website: http://www.eldredbird.com/.