“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.