There are some crazy characters in this world. Some panhandle in grocery stores or perhaps put ketchup on sliced tomatoes. What if you met someone who smoked so much pot they smelled like it 24/7 even when they hadn’t touched it all day? What does that say about their personality? Well, it’s all fodder for fiction. These little quirks add realism to characters and could even play into a plot line. I believe it’s the things our characters do and say that make them real, more so than the laundry list of physical descriptions you sometimes find in a novel.
Over the years, I’ve found there are two camps to character description. With one, the author works it in through another character’s thoughts or a personal assessment in a mirror, or secondly, there is nothing at all. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either approach, as long as it’s done consistently and deliberately. You see, good writing doesn’t just happen; it is crafted and thought out.
Detailed Description is hard to work in unobtrusively. The last thing you want is to pull the reader from the story for what feels like an info-dump of hair color, complexion and wardrobe. Also, the mirror trick is a bit over-done, so that leaves window reflections, toasters and other shiny objects. How do you work it in effectively? Don’t worry about getting the full description on the first page. Trickle the key elements through the natural story action. Your hero could pull a long auburn strand from the mystery woman’s shoulder—now you know her hair color. He could look down or up into her eyes—now you have a physical ratio established between them. Let your main character pick up a box of Rogaine. Now what do you know about him? Did you info dump to clue your reader to his looks? Our minds are wired to fill in the blanks. (That’s why we can’t find our own typos.) The empty spaces will be filled with the reader’s inference and imagination.
No Description is also hard. (Haha, you thought you were off the descriptive hook.) With no description offered up, the reader will naturally cast themselves as the main character. It goes against our literary nature to not paint their expressions and freckles and closet contents into the story. It is minimalist. It will feel weird, but it might be a fun exercise.
In my writing, I hold back from giving physical descriptions until that part of the character is key to the story or their psyches. It takes a lot of practice and even more editing. I’m always asking myself if there is a better way to get the idea across.
So, I’ll never say my character is short, but she may need a step-ladder, or just climb onto the kitchen counter to reach the shelf.
I love the wily characters I meet every day. There’s at least one grocery store I’ll never visit again and even though I explained the irony of ketchup on tomatoes, my daughter still eats them that way. The last one, well, I guess he’s hanging out in the (ahem) clouds.