How People Look.

“As young readers like to know `how people look’, we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight…”–Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Whenever it comes to introducing a new character or describing them, I almost always think of this quote from Louisa May Alcott classic novel, Little Women, and I always wonder how accurate it may be. Granted, I don’t typically write for young readers, and I know as a reader in general, I do like to know “how people look,” but I know I also don’t like to be hit over the head with a full-on description that takes me out of the narrative. Sometimes I feel that my own attempts to subtly sneak descriptions of characters into my narrative leaves an unclear picture, but you want it to sound natural at the same time. Characters introduced through the point of view of another character are like gifts; it would make sense to have the POV describing a new character. It’s less likely that they would be thinking about how the guy they’ve known for their whole life looks.

Does the issue of when and how to describe characters in your book plague anyone else? As a reader, are you impartial to how a character’s description is introduced, or do you have certain pet peeves that you hate to see in a narrative? I know I cringe whenever I come across frequently repeated epithets (my classic example if from the Young Jedi Knights series and the Solo twins’ “brandy-colored eyes.” I can see repetition being helpful in a young adult series, but then why use an alcohol for a description?), but I also realize that I’m occasionally a perpetrator of that, too, though I try to keep my epithets without too much pomp, sticking to “red hair” or “dark eyes” or “tall whatever.”

These thoughts could also be applied to describing a setting. I know I’m terrible at putting description in my original drafts, but I know with Serpent in a Cage, one of the things I want to focus on in the typed draft is really developing the world and taking the time to immerse the reader in descriptions of the world we’re in…without being too overdone. The key is definitely to find that balance where the descriptions are taking a person deeper into the story rather than pulling them out to show things off. It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but I want to improve my ability to make the visuals as bright and details for my reader as they are in my own head.

So, now I turn it to you? Do you, like Alcott’s young people, like to know “how people look?” Or do you tend to be irritated with too much description? Do you have certain authors that you think do this description very well…or some that are notoriously bad at it? For me, the Young Jedi Knight‘s “brandy-brown eyes” and “red-gold hair” will constantly serve as reminders as the dangers of oft-repeated description, but I know other authors have managed to sweep me away with their seamless and extraordinary descriptions, too.

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7 thoughts on “How People Look.

  1. Those flourishing adverbs and adjectives detract as you say and I think they are mere “filler’ that may add another 10% to the novel’s length which may be part of the inclination. Indicative style of those vapid romance novels. I have recently become a fan of well researched historical fiction. As a retired history teacher I find so few people have any knowledge of how people ate or worked or dressed or are aware of the particulars of any historical period. For example my high school students could not tell if it was inaccurate if you had the Romans using tanks or WW 2 soldiers using crossbows. So description may be needed but not in the sense of adjectives.

  2. Some description is always helpful, but, in my opinion at least, going beyond the basic characteristics is a very risky proposition. The chances that author and reader share a mental picture of any character, even the main hero or villain, are very slim. I can remember several books (though not by name) where an off-hand description partway through the book contradicted how I imagined a character. You’re right that a comprehensive character description ‘takes you out of the narrative’ as you scramble to put together an “accurate” mental image. Personally, I try to pick one, maybe two characteristics per character to describe…. But yeah, character description is hard.

    An author I really like when it comes to descriptions, btw, is Christopher Paolini (of Eragon fame). He’s very young still, and his writing continues maturing and improving by book, but I’ve always thought that his descriptions do an excellent job of setting up a mental framework while still leaving plenty of details for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

  3. I try and keep description as minimal as possible when it comes to people. I don’t know if that always works. I find it more important to have relevant descriptions of places or settings, especially when needed (as Carl points out above).

  4. Eh. This is a difficult one. One of the things I seem to think is important to mention is if the character has a particular feature that stands out, like floppy hair that shakes when he moves or even more so… if a body type influences how he or she interacts with people (someone who is 6’5″ and built like a refrigerator will interact very differently from someone who is just under 5′ and petite). I’m like you–I’d rather not over-describe. I tend to err on the under-describing end.

  5. I agree with Anne on this. I dislike list-type descriptions. It is much more effective to interject only those features that make the character different and giving them in small pieces rather than a paragraph describing every everything at once. Then once the initial introduction is accomplished, use a few of those features throughout the story to help reinforce the image of your character in the reader’s mind.

  6. I like some description in a story, but not too much of character. I can fill that in myself too.
    I do like the setting described, as long as it makes sense with the flow at that time. Leaping into a room, guns blazing, dodging a thrown chair – not a likely spot for the hero to ponder many details of the place.

  7. You know, I think I might be in the minority here. I want to know exactly what a character looks like. I’m much more into the characters than the settings, although I love a good description of setting, too. I don’t give TOO much description when I write because I know some readers don’t care as much as I do about the characters’ looks. 🙂 I did mention two or three times my vampire character’s violet eyes in my Libby Fox trilogy because the color is so unusual and Libby was fascinated by it.

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