All writers know that good description is necessary to give the reader an image of your characters. ‘Good’ description, I’ve learned, means different things to different people. I read an excerpt of a newbie’s novel once in which the details were sensory and specific, but that was so descriptive my senses were overloaded all at once and I had to stop reading before I got queasy. In describing characters, too many details can confuse the reader as to what they should focus on. For example: Maria stood there, fixed in place like a statue, wearing a crisp white blouse and black, knife-edged pressed slacks. Her expression was dark and somber as though someone had just died. She wore a silver necklace with a pendant shaped like a daisy around her delicate, smooth-skinned neck. She had the voluptuous bosom and narrow waist of a Hollywood starlet. Her hips were wide but her feet were slender and long and were stuffed into cherry red stilettos that made her feet look like small gondolas.
Wow! Way too many details. In describing characters, details have to be selected carefully. A writer should keep the details that are relevant in that scene and leave the rest for another time or ditch them altogether. One or two well-chosen physical traits, an article of clothing or a unique behavior can reveal more about the character than a slew of descriptive, but random expressions.
A better example, an excerpt from best-selling author Joy Fielding’s Now You See Her: “Marcy looked up to see a roguishly handsome young man with enviably straight black hair falling into luminous dark green eyes. She thought he had the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen.”
The description gives the reader an initial sense of the man, maybe flirtatious or arrogant, certainly handsome. His “enviably straight” hair, may indicate that Marcy suffers with unmanageable, curly hair.
Beyond offering too many details, some writers offer too much too soon. Exposition should take place gradually to allow the reader to digest the personality of the character a little at a time. The reader wants the sweet taste of discovering what this character wants or needs, in addition to what the character looks like or feels at the moment.
Addressing the visual physical description of a character is only one way to introduce them to the reader. The scent of a character can bring a sensory understanding of his age or preoccupation…cigar smoke, motor oil, sweat, breath mints, fresh air and pine scents. Or how does a person’s skin feel? Is he wearing scratchy wool clothing? What about what you hear from your character? Is her voice nasaly or her laughter shrill?
Environment is another descriptor that gives the reader the image you hope to convey about your character. Where does he/she work…a garden nursery, a dance studio, a restaurant, or does he live in the countryside near a horse farm, in the city with its noise and cold concrete structures, or on the beach with the sounds of seagulls diving for food and the warm breeze bringing the scent of fish and ocean water?
The environment can also depict his emotional state…curled up before the fire, daydreaming; sitting on a stool in grandma’s kitchen; huddled next to a dumpster, his arms wrapped tightly around himself to protect from the cold wind; or has she found herself in a gay bar, uncomfortably, trying to fit in to get information from the bartender?
Yet, description is not all external. Your character must have had a life before you wrote her into your story. She grew up in a certain set of circumstances. The biography you write for her will give you those circumstance from which to weave her emotional state throughout the novel. Explore what your characters dreams, fears, fantasies, obsessions, memories might be. Try creating a situation to which your character must react, one that may reveal his/her values or attitudes.
In the end, the author will describe the paint the picture of the character physically, his environs, his actions, but the character’s consciousness will filter the description and will render the story in a shape that will suite him and the telling of the tale.