Detailed Character Descriptions: Yea or Nay?

On August 20, 2013, we received the sad news that great American writer Elmore Leonard had passed away. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of Mr. Leonard before Twitter told me of his passing, though of course I was familiar with the Hollywood adaptations of his work.

That day, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing were tweeted and retweeted. Maybe I’d seen these before, but as I read them again it struck me that though there was much wisdom there, I disagreed with a couple, at least in so far as they’re said to be gospel. These are: “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and “Don’t go into great detail describing places or things.”

In this post I’ll stick to discussing character description, but much of what I say could apply to descriptions of places and things. In fact, I might do another post about setting-as-character, and how descriptions can serve to heighten tone and atmosphere.

Now, is it possible to go too far with character descriptions; to include too much detail? Yes. Does the reader need a complete description of each character immediately upon being introduced to them? No. Is the fact that the character has dry elbows important? Well…maybe not. But must detailed descriptions be avoided at all costs? I don’t think so.

Here’s the thing: when they’re well done, I like character descriptions. I like getting to know people I might not have imagined myself, and often admire the skill that goes into crafting a good description, though some might call the latter authorial intrusion.

The following are examples of quite detailed character descriptions from award-winning and/or bestselling works.

From Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union:

Little bird of a man. Bright eye, snub beak. Bit of a flush in the cheeks and throat that might have been rosacea. Not a hard case, not a scumbag, not quite a lost soul. A yid not too different from Landsman, maybe, apart from his choice of drug. Clean fingernails. Always a tie and hat. Read a book with footnotes once. Now Lasker lies on his belly, on the pull-down bed, face to the wall, wearing only a pair of regulation white underpants. Ginger hair and ginger freckles and three days of golden stubble on his cheek. A trace of a double chin that Landsman puts down to a vanished life as a fat boy. Eyes swollen in their blood-dark orbits. At the back of his head is a small, burnt hole.

This excerpt shows wonderful facility with prose, neatly encapsulates a murder victim’s life, and tells us something about the POV character as well. And these details are being reported by a character who has reason to notice: a homicide detective investigating a murder.

From multiple award winning novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour. I pick up the shopping basket and put it over my arm.

Here we learn a lot about the world—a foreign and rule-bound place—and get a sense of the character’s reluctance and lack of free will. There’s also a palpable sense of menace (“and not for dancing”).

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From Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar. The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

Ridiculous and funny on its face, this excerpt also tells the reader a fair bit about Mr. Reilly’s..interesting view of the world, and marks him as a potentially unreliable narrator.

These are all “literary” works (well, The Handmaid’s Tale is literary SFF, but don’t tell Margaret Atwood), but anything that can be done in literary writing can be done in any genre. And character descriptions don’t have to be flowery. Here are a couple of genre examples:

From The Name of the Wind by #1 New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss:

It was a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate.

“It’s not a spider,” Jake said. “It’s got no eyes.”

“It’s got no mouth either,” Carter pointed out…

“Its feet are sharp like knives.”
“More like razors,” Kote said… “It’s smooth and hard, like pottery.”

Moving carefully, the innkeeper took one of the long, smooth legs and tried to break it with both hands like a stick. “Not pottery,” he amended… “More like stone.” He looked up at Carter. “How did it get all these cracks?” He pointed at the thin fractures that crazed the smooth black surface of the body.

…”There’s no blood. No organs. It’s just grey inside.” He poked it with a finger. “Like a mushroom.”

…”Spiders don’t get as big as pigs. You know what this is… It’s a demon.”

Here we see description in dialogue rather than as an expository lump. Rothfuss could’ve simply described the thing as spider-like or something equally generic and let the reader imagine, but instead he’s created a fantastical beast considerably more formidable and mysterious than a mere spider—part of the fun of fantasy.

From Peter S. Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn:

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at her ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

Unicorns are immortal. It is their nature to live alone in one place; usually a forest where there is a pond clear enough to see themselves—for they are a little vain, knowing themselves to be the most beautiful creatures in the world, and magic besides…

This has a lovely, fairytale quality about it and shows us a magical creature nothing like the “horned horse” we might’ve otherwise imagined. And it’s important that the reader understand what’s at stake before her transformation takes place; how extraordinary and very different unicorns are from humans. The story wouldn’t be nearly so poignant otherwise.

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io9 has more great character descriptions from science fiction and fantasy books here.

Whether we choose to describe characters in detail or not boils down to what kind of story we’re writing. It’s a matter of style and the fact is that some readers will prefer more description and some will prefer less and that’s okay.

Stories that lack character descriptions have a sort of everyman quality; the sense that one is reading a parable, or allegory, or a story of such profound and basic importance that individual characters take second place to theme. The characters may be serving more as archetypes, and the author need only insert a couple telling details to allow the reader to recognize them. Readers are invited to fill in blanks so they might feel more invested—as though the story could very well be about them or people they know, or is at least as they choose to imagine it, rather than having the author’s vision forced upon them.

There are still other reasons for omitting detailed character descriptions, such as form emulating content—think of the aptly named Shadow from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, whose appearance is kept mysterious in keeping with his name—or that excessive or ill-timed description can dissipate tension.

But there are reasons, too, for describing characters more fully.

Maybe the best descriptions are those that achieve more than simply describing a character—that work on more than one level. They are humorous or sad, elucidate setting or a state of mind, show us something fantastical or artful, serve the purpose of world building, or some combination of all of these.

Maybe the problem Leonard is getting at is when the details shared about a character’s appearance add nothing to the story other than a mere visual. If the character is an average farm boy, for example, perhaps it’s enough to say he was wearing old boots and had a smear of grease on his cheek—the color of his hair isn’t really that important. If that farm boy has a pierced lip, well, that might be unusual and worthy of mention. It tells us something more (i.e. maybe he’s a rebel, or has been to the city, or aspires to something other than rural life) than does the fact that his eyes are green. Of course, if we’re reading a romance, the fact that the farm boy’s eyes are green is important. We notice these things about our romantic interests, and characters should notice these things, too.

Proscriptive rules of writing are often too simple, but there’s still good reason to know and consider them. When it comes to writing character descriptions, consider: 1) whether a character has good reason to notice and describe, in detail, what she or another character looks like; 2) which details a character is likely to notice depending on their personality/occupation/role and the nature of your story (e.g. romance, fantasy, mystery); and 3) whether your character descriptions might serve some additional purpose(s) (e.g. world building, social commentary, establishing voice etc.). With these things in mind I say…describe away!

What do you think? Do you prefer detailed descriptions or find them tedious?

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  • peekiequeen

    Your second last paragraph says it all. If it’s necessary to be wordy about it for the sake of something beyond mere visual, fine. But calling the farm boy a farm boy, its good enough to just mention the boots and grease. Great commentary.

    • Erika Holt

      Thank you! 🙂

  • Sandra Wickham

    Fabulous post! Thanks, Erika.

    • Erika Holt

      Aw, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Matt Evan Probst

    First time commenter, here. Thanks for bringing this up. Your reaction to the late Mr. Leonard’s rules for writers was similar to my own.

    I tend to think POV is one of the most important considerations when it comes to character description. Depending on the type of POV, a lengthy description of the viewpoint character might not make sense.

    Likewise, a viewpoint character can dictate who gets described in depth, since the POV could be limited to focusing on who and what they find important.

    This is especially true since in most instances an extended description creates the impression of pausing to study someone. When and where you have the opportunity to slow down and give a subject that kind of attention is going to be greatly dependent on the POV being used.