Don’t Describe Your Characters?

puppy loveI’m going to stop now and tell you outright that I’m a handsome fella, and I’ve broken many hearts and will continue to do so for the good part of the next 50 years. My hair is black and my eyes hazel brown, and a sight to see for many a mile, especially if you’re walking in a desolate wasteland.

Chances are good you don’t believe me at the moment. Even if you do … you’d be waiting for me to prove it to you, to break your heart, and to show you how dazzling I can be.

Well, no. I can’t prove it to you since all that was a lie.

But the above description makes a point I would like to share today: everytime I describe a character I create an expectation – a raised eyebrow that awaits proof of my statement. If I call Mr Green a ‘despicable, unagreeable old geezer, prone to fits of uncontrollable rage and quick to change his mind on any subject’ I’ll have a lot to cover, and most of it through actions and words and monologues.

It has been personal habit really, this reluctance to describe character attributes. Early on I found my character development to be limited – I just didn’t have the skill to paint real people onto the pages of my book. I know there are quite a few novelists who pull this off without batting an eyelid – Tolstoy’s War And Peace has believable characters, a true accomplishment when you realize the novel spans 900 plus pages and is littered with a hundred member cast.

So what did I do? I covered. I kept character descriptions to just the physical attributes, letting the reader pick up on how the character thought and moved and ticked throughout the course of the novel. It worked, and in the meantime I practised furiously the art of bringing my characters to life.

Now there are limitations to this technique, and I’m the first to admit that. If you have a huge cast of characters (and a relatively short plot) there just isn’t enough time to develop each and every one of them. And if it’s flash fiction or short stories don’t bother. You’re better off describing the character, since discrepancies aren’t likely to occur and you don’t need to aim for an emotional connection for such a small piece.

kevinbook_1.jpgWant an example of this? I’ve just finished We Need To Talk About Kevin, a novel about the aftermath of a high school killing. In the series of letters that make up the book we grow to intimately understand Kevin – why he did what he did, what motivates him, how he grew up the way he did despite all the love his parents had for him.

We don’t develop this understanding because of a torrent of descriptions; rather Lionel Shriver gives example after example of what Kevin does, and slowly we piece together the person he is. It is an amazing book, with a powerful way of studying a character, stripping him down layer by layer, motivation by motivation.

You never love Kevin. You hate him. But you understand why he does the things he does, why he thinks the way he thinks.

You get under his skin, and you get under the skin of his mother. It’s not a comfortable place to be.

See the power of excluding descriptions? Some call it showing and not telling, but the best way to understand would be to dissect a 468 page, award winning example for yourself. Read it.

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Category: Learning To Write
  • ming

    Call of the wind, was a whole mini novel based on that premis! great tip!

  • Nina

    As you say, Lionel Shriver gives example after example after example after example after example after example after example after example example after example after example after example after example after example after example after example example after example after example after example after example after example after example after example. Enough. I kept thinking, make her stop. Each example is unrelentingly evil, and many readers chalk this up to the fact the Eva is an unreliable narrator. I chalk it up to bad writing. No one can overwrite like Lionel Shriver. It’s the controversial content (A mother who hates her child! A high school killer!) that has garnered attention, not the writing.

  • Richard

    Describing people. Oh dear me yes. One thing that I’ve really noticed with my self-imposed limit of 350 words per blog entry is that there is literally no time for me to describe anything physical. I’ve got to tell the story and I’ve got to get the emotion across.

    This really did make me sit down and think about how to depict the characters. Partially I try to do it through the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach.

    But partially I think I rely an awful lot on the reader to fill in the blanks. At times I feel like I’m writing a cartoon or something.

    I’m not entirely satisfied with this approach–but I do at least try to focus on emotional verisimilitude to get the characters to connect with the audience.

    That was an interesting and thought-provoking post, thanks.

  • Eli James

    @Ming: A whole mini novel?! Ehheh. ^.^

    @Nina: One man’s meat may be another man’s poison. On the contrary I found the book to be very satisfying (and boy your list of examples must’ve been hard to copy and paste). But maybe I enjoyed it because I had been book starved for a good month.

    At any rate it sprung to mind immediately when I thought of showing and not telling on a character in a novel.

    @Richard: I’d say you show and not tell in Undead Flowers. So much action to tell us how your characters worked and thought and functioned. And I think that’s the main draw of books over movies: we construct the characters of a story in our mind, rather than having them handed to us with all their imperfections.

  • Betsy

    Reminds me of the famous Mark Twain quote, “Don’t say the old lady screamed, bring her on and let her scream.” As a reader, I seldom care what a character looks like unless their looks will play specifically into the plot. I do love to know a bit about how they’re dressed. Not every little detail of their clothes, but sometimes it can say a lot about them.

  • Eli James

    Betsy: I have very limited fashion sense, so the descriptions of a characters clothes just blows right over my head …

    But I love authors who give scanty descriptions of their characters: Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre described Jane as plain and Mr Rochester as ugly, but not how exactly they were such. And that allowed my mind to create images of them, as I wished.

    Oh I enjoyed Jane Eyre tremendously.