Saturday, February 6, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about my characters in my novel lately. I know what they look like in my mind and there are some certain things readers need to know about them. The main character is pretty but likes to hide herself in an unkempt exterior. The skater wears holey jeans and is buffed somewhere under those baggy clothes. The football player can barely fit his legs under the dinky school desk.

But there's this fine line. I want readers to fill in the way the characters look in their imaginations. (I know, this is assuming there will be readers. Humor me.) I'm not sure I want to mention what shade their hair is, the color of their eyes, or even the tone of their skin. These characters could be any kids at any school. Maybe you know someone like them or maybe they're doing things you don't even realize people their age do. Either way, I want readers to see these characters as people they would know. Their colors don't really matter.

Yet, books need description. Readers need to be able to see these characters clearly. I'm a little torn on how far I'll go in describing the ways my characters look. Hopefully I can give enough description so readers can see them, but not so much that I overpower the reader's imaginations. I'm sure I'll be putting descriptions in, and taking them out, and putting them in, and taking them out...hopefully I'll be able to find a balance that is just right.


  1. I struggle with this balance too. When I read, I tend to prefer very little physical description so I can imagine the characters on my own. But then again, I love well-placed details that make the characters more vivid. I like to test my critique partners and see what details stood out to them about the characters; that usually helps me figure out how much description to add/subtract. Good luck!

  2. I also struggle with the balance. I write how I read, sort of without too many physical details, but just enough. For example, I think mentioning the type of tee shirt a guy wears can say a lot about his overall desc., rather than going through each detail. Or saying how long a character does (or doesn't) spend doing her hair may give an idea of the effort she puts into appearance overall. Just two small examples that popped into my head.:)

  3. Yes, Heather, the description dance, you describe it well. How much is too much? How much is not enough? I shoot for sparse but specific. Something that'll evoke an image but not a complete picture. I think it also depends on who the POV character is. How does he/she see the other characters?

    In any event I hope you're having fun with your writing:-)

    I'm in the middle of a rewrite and am working on this very thing--how much description, and I'm asking myself, does this description move the story forward or develop character in a meaningful way? Or both?

    Happy writing!

  4. Well said, Paul!

    I am reading a certain YA multi-million-dollar blockbuster of a novel, and it has made me really think carefully about description - which details are important, which details will drive the plot or character along. I agree with the need for specific but sparse details unless the appearance of a person is a key plot point, in which case you can go into more detail. It's definitely an issue that requires much nail-biting and lip-chewing.

    Good post! And good luck with your novel!

  5. Yes, well placed details are the key. My critique partners definitely help me to see where I have too much or not enough. Those are good questions to ask during the revision, Paul. I'll keep them in mind as I write. (I like that you think I describe the description dance well, by the way. Ha!) Thanks for the thoughts everyone, and good luck with your writing too!