Last week it was pointed out to me (not in an unkind way) that there isn’t a lot of physical description of the characters in my writing. This is undeniably true, and although I don’t actively sit there thinking ‘Descriptions: THERE SHALL BE NONE’ as I write, I know I don’t put a lot of it in. Somewhat unusually for me, though, this time I have a clear idea as to why that is.

Part of it is that I think sometimes writers give a bit too much away when they introduce a character and there’s a solid paragraph of physical description. It’s like hanging a sign around the character’s neck ‘THIS ONE IS IMPORTANT’. It’s a lot more fun, for me anyway, to not have a clear sense of who is and isn’t going to be Important to the story from the first moment they appear. Instead, just like in real life you have to wait for them to act to see if they’re going to deliver one line and exit your stage left, never to be seen again, or become a lead element of the story for the next month.

That’s really a secondary issue though, and a lot of authors are skilled enough to not drop the description on you all at once, but weave it in gradually as encounters with that character progress. Which is where I run into my other problem.

The main reason that I don’t heavily describe characters is that, as a reader, I tend not to like being given detailed descriptions – so I guess I’m writing for myself as usual. To explain, I form pictures in my head of what I think characters are like fairly quickly. Sometimes it’s then a little jarring to have the author give a detail that clashes with my imagined image – to be told that a character I had imagined as blond has dark hair, for example. Sometimes it’s a little worse than that; I remember watching the Lord of the Rings animated film for the first time, getting to the first scene with Aragorn and thinking ‘that is not what Aragorn looks like’ (based on the image I had in my head from the books) and it was like an itch I couldn’t scratch for the rest of the movie.

I’m not entirely clear on where all the details my imagination uses to create these pictures comes from, if it isn’t from words on the page – and often it is not. There’s some kind of intuitive process that I don’t really want to think about very much happening where I decide, subconsciously, what a given character looks like. Somewhat unfortunately for me, a lot of the time when I get a little more detail from the actual creator of that character, my subconscious intuitive process doesn’t match up with their imaginations and I’m left feeling somewhat dissatisfied about the whole thing. I mean, I had such a clear picture of this person in my mind, but the actual author of the piece can’t be wrong about what their character looks like, can they?

This veers dangerously close to Death of the Author again.

So anyway, I do know perfectly well what all my characters look like, but admittedly a lot of that detail isn’t in my writing. Details that I think are absolutely vital get in there – if a character wears glasses, and that’s going to be relevant later on, for example – but I leave a lot of it out, partly because I find it difficult including it in a way that doesn’t seem clumsy to me, but also because I like the idea of the reader creating their own pictures of what all these people look like, to them. For most of them, whether they’re tall or short or the colour of their hair doesn’t really matter, and I since I enjoy having my own mental images of the characters I read about, I also enjoy the idea of the reader being able to do the same.

I’m not 100% sure that this isn’t a terrible idea, but it’s pretty consistent across my writing. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

I know that was also fairly introspective again. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Writing continues to be a bit of a challenge at the moment.  I have some junk that is distracting me and need to remember that getting some writing done will make me feel better.

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2 thoughts on “Descriptors

  1. I completely understand your dismay when watching a movie. I have often felt the same. Sometimes my book club friends will say something about a character that does not match my idea and I have to question if there was something I missed. It is annoying when reading huge details about characters, but it is even more difficult to weave descriptions into the story line subtly. I feel your pain!
    Still, write and let the reader fill in the blanks. They will anyway.

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