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Yet More (or Less) Character Description
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Commenting on my entry about visualizing characters, Lumin wrote, in part:

I've always found that when reading, if the author just puts down a couple of sentences on things like hair and eye color, maybe the general body type and height, that's about all that's necessary. (Unless there's some specific or unusual characteristics that are important enough to be mentioned.)

Some people are better at writing interesting descriptions than others, but any overly long passage right in the middle of the action can be distracting....

It may be better just to write down the important bits; in most cases the person reading will fill in the rest without even realizing it.

I was reminded of a book by Jonathan Kellerman in which the first appearance of every character was accompanied by a long paragraph of detailed description from hair style down to shoe color. To me, these descriptions sounded like they'd been transfered straight from the writer's background notes and they told me more than I cared about or had any chance of remembering. Clothing descriptions, in particular, fly past my eyes without ever being routed to my brain, just like architectural details, because in each case I am so ignorant of the nomenclature that the more precise the writer's words the less of them I understand.

Mostly, what I did remember as I read, were isolated details. One guy was big and another had a fancy mustache. To create the cast of characters in my mind, I grafted these little touches onto a set of somewhat amorphous generic hosts of my own imagining and immediately forgot the brands of the shirts or the fabric in the sweaters, or whatever the heck they had on.

However, Jonathan Kellerman is a far more skilled writer than I am and has won over a huge readership. Presumably this sort of description works. Often when a succesful writer does something that grates, there's a lesson to be learned.

In this case, it got me thinking that maybe a writer can get too clever about working character descriptions in subtly. Maybe what is wanted is for the desciption to be just laid out on the table: Okay. Here it is. Build, hair color, eye color, tattoos, moles, other identifying characteristics, clothes. Anything there you think you can tag this character with? Help yourself and let's move along.

And maybe the safest approach is to give readers a wide selection of details to choose from. My preference is to present a description when a character shows up, without trying to get too cute about it, but as Lumin suggests, to limit the description to fewer details and of the sort that tend to stick in my own mind.

At least that's the theory. Tomorrow I will explain how to hit a Randy Johnson fastball, in theory.

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