Yes, but what does he look like?

Some writers, Stephen King among them, say that character description should be left up to reader imagination.

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown.”
On Writing

At first blush, this makes perfect sense, and for some people, it may work very well. I would certainly say King pulls it off. However, I have one major complaint with this philosophy; most reader’s imaginations, mine included, will not come up with concrete images of a character.

All that many of us will get is a corner-of-the-eye blurry picture, punctuated by the couple of points the author perhaps filled in for us. Tall. Gap-toothed.
Most minds, in the absence of information, do not decide if the hair is blonde or brown, the nose thin or broad, brows thick or thin.
Are looks vital to plot? Except in unusual cases (Think Fire) …No. Not necessary at all. But we, insatiably curious creatures that we are, want to know. And so the authors tell us. Or not.

I like my favorite books to give me clear images. When I sit down to draw Keladry of Mindelan (yes, she’s the lancer I mentioned in Mad Skillz), I don’t have to guess; I know her hair is light brown and helmet cut, her eyes are hazel, her nose is delicate and her build solid.
Not every single possible descriptive is given– it was never declared whether her ears are more rounded or pointed, it was never said how they are angled on her head. But enough is said, enough that my mind’s eye is comfortable picturing her.

But what is enough, and what is too much? Genre and opinion seem the only dictates.

One thing I’m sure none of us want: A full-page description of everybody who walks past the narrator’s camera.

So fearful have I been, however, of doing exactly that, that I grew jumpy of mentioning anything about my people’s looks.
I would pause, agonize, debate, and finally slip in “…Sy’s boyish face and broad grin…”, then sit and wonder if the addition was jarring or contrived.
I finally realized that, as a reader, that was exactly the type of tip-off I would want– and want more of.

However, this does not make excessive descriptions any less fearful! Yes, the reader cares, but only so much. But what is that so much? How does a writer strike any kind of balance?
Put yourself behind the reader’s glasses. Ask “If I hadn’t spent the last five days/weeks/months/years obsessed with this story and person, what would I want to know?”

And don’t write any more– or less– than you would want to read yourself.

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2 comments

  1. I’m with you. I like a decent description. The trick is working it in as part of the story – “The man in the alley swept his eyes over Simon, noting his broad shoulders and athletic gait. He met the stony flatness of Simon’s gaze, and looked away. He would choose another victim.”

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