Thursday, March 8, 2012

What's In A Description?

Jay Stringer

I've been thinking a lot on character descriptions lately. As we work through the copy edits for my first book, and fresh eyes are examining the text, I'm seeing just how few physical descriptions I give to people.

If I mention their physicality at all, it will be vague; the way their smile turns, a particular look that they give with their eyes. The rest of my descriptions will be about their attitude, or their accent, maybe how their hands move as they talk. After that, it's all dialogue. I let them talk and talk, and wait for that to create something.

For me as a writer, I guess I like to lead the reader down a certain route, but make them do the work in terms of creating a physical image in their heads. I tend to feel that if the reader has done more of that work, whether they realise it or not, they will be more invested in those characters.

But not everyone sees it that way, and looking around at the fiction on my shelf there is a wide variety. Some authors want to give you every little detail as they create their character, to take someone that's fully formed in their head already and implant him/her in yours. I see this approach more with thrillers and action stories, books where descriptions overall are more important, maybe this follows through in the authors mind. For instance, I read some of the Gabriel Hunt books recently, and they tend far more toward physical descriptions, right down to cleft jaws, but they are also books that have to describe weapons and long actions scenes, so it's more about consistency.

In crime I often see more of a middle ground. Lawrence Block, for instance, would often give us a physical description of each of the supporting cast in the Matt Scudder books, but rarely gave us anything of Scudder himself.

I've been reading HURT MACHINE by Reed Farrel Coleman, and he's given us very little of Moe Prager over the years, though again the supporting cast are very well etched. We chatted with Reed on our podcast a while back -you'll find the episode in the itunes archive- and he told us this was deliberate. He has a firm idea of Moe in his head, and who would play him in a movie, but it's for the reader to form their own impression.

As we've worked through the copy edit, I've moved more toward that "middle ground" of description, where I'm giving you more for the supporting cast, but still leaving enough of a black hole that you as the reader have to do the rest of the work and, hopefully, get more invested as a result.

But how about you, as writers and readers, how much or how little description do you like on your page?


Dana King said...

It depends on how good the writer is with description, and how important the description is to the character. I tend to describe characters more when writing in first person, as I can characterize the POV protagonist in part by what he notices, and how he describes it.

When I write in third person, descriptions are sketchier, though I will flesh them out if something about that person's physical description plays an important in the story.

Steve Weddle said...

I give a shit the guy has brown hair?

Allan Guthrie said...

I've changed my mind on this one over the years, Jay. I used to avoid physical descriptions but I've had to concede that creating visual pictures in the readers' mind is hugely beneficial in engaging them with the story, and a succinct 'first-impressions' type physical description of whoever the point of view character meets can be very useful. Sure, as Steve says, we don't care if the guy has brown hair. The problem there isn't in describing the character, tho, it's in having a boring narrator who chooses to tell us someone's hair is brown. As Dana says, descriptions of other characters are a very useful way to characterise the narrator (I''d suggest it applies every bit as much to third person as it does to first). Elmore Leonard does this all the time. You'll get the same character described variously by other POV characters and because they all bring their own prejudices to the table, the character being described quite often sounds like a very different person. For instance, "A sweet girl, looked a bit chilly" as opposed to "Halter top, no bra".

Al Tucher said...

I resist description and often skip it when I read, but I also have to concede that some is necesary. I do try to make it do double duty and help move the story, instead of including it as an indigestible lump.