Less is More: Describing Characters

You’re in the business of writing to write stuff, tell stories, and do it well. You take great care (I would hope) to paint lightly, letting this thing called “imagination” fill in the rest.

And then you screw it up by slapping down all the details, leaving the reader with no work to do.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

How do I describe my characters the right way? Is there a way of doing too much? Too little? Where’s the happy of happiest mediums? 

—Ramona O’Neal, Blue Mound, Tex.

I’d like to say that there is no “right way,” only many “wrong ways.” But that sounds more amusing than it is true.

Just to make this easier, here are some of the wrong ways of going about it.

Beginning with description 

A rookie mistake. A bad writer mistake. Unless you write to dumb readers, they will figure this character out.

Using a mirror

I. Will. Not. Read. Your. Book. If. A. Mirror. Is. Used. To. Describe. Your. Character. This is the cheapest trick of cheap tricks.

Going “Whole Hog”

Including every single detail just tells your reader, “Hey, I don’t trust you to get this right. Let me do all the work. You just buy my crap, follow my posts, and eat the circus peanuts I toss you from my blog, ok?”

Using description as a plot point

That’s also a cheap trick, unless this is The Rhinoceros Man, Vol. 2 or whatever.

Character description is over-rated. Don’t underestimate your reader’s imagination. Give them something to work with, then let them take the rest.

Heck, while you’re at it: weave it into the story. Work smarter.

“He itched his pug nose.”

“She plucked a stray hair, letting the red strand fall to the sand.”

“He hiked up his frayed cargo shorts and wiped the sweat from his unibrow.”

“The punches darkened his once blue eyes into stinging maroons.”

“Her spindly hand stung from slapping his foetid jowls.”

“His paunch threatened to burst through his designer shirt as he shifted his bulk toward me. He’s more substance than style, even if he labored for the opposite.”

Swift tells. Strong brushstrokes. Strategic nuance. Get the painting started. The joy of reading is filling in some of that detail yourself. Don’t cheat your reader.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

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