Descriptions are an important tool in a writer’s bag of tricks. Done correctly, they incite the readers’ imaginations, deepen point of view, and advance the plot and character. But descriptions are hard to do well. Elmore Leonard said his most important advice to writers was to “try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” Keep your descriptions lively and focused on advancing plot, character, and establishing point of view and readers will devour them rather than skip them.
It’s worth noting that there’s one school of thought that deprecates descriptions of your point-of-view character. The whole idea of third person limited is that your reader will experience your fictional world through the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of your POV character. Unless we’re pretty narcissistic, most of us don’t go around thinking about how we look, how tall we are, the color of our eyes, or other personal details. To be sure, readers need to know some minimal things about the POV character, lest she be a stick figure, but her emotional state and the sensations she’s experiencing are more intimate and subjective, and thus more effective at establishing POV. Knowing that she’s seven feet tall and weighs 90 pounds is important only if it’s essential to the story. If it’s not, leave it out. Indeed, peculiarities in appearance can work against putting the reader inside the POV character’s head. Thus, how much you describe your POV character depends on the story and on your own style. Fiction is art, not mathematics. There aren’t any axioms or theorems, just guidelines.
Since I believe that descriptions should be integral to the story, before I give my example I need to have some idea of characters and plot. Suppose, for example, I’m starting a new story and I have the following two character profiles:
Joe is twenty-something, an accountant who is struggling to make ends meet. He’s had a hard-scrabble existence with a community college degree in bookkeeping. He’s got low self-esteem, and he over-compensates by working out obsessively and studying pre-law in night school.
Kirsten is an heiress and, like Joe, is twenty-something. Despite her Ivy League degree, no one takes her seriously, so she over-compensates by wearing expensive business suits, keeping a severe, short hairdo, and wearing wire-framed glasses instead of contacts. Her beloved father is dead and her mother has re-married.
The plot involves Kirsten hiring Joe as the fall-guy in a complex and ruthless plan to swindle her over-bearing step-father. Hmmm…I may actually wind up writing a story or novella based on these ideas.
I find that it’s helpful to locate a photo that captures the image I have in my mind. When your novel goes into production, the artist assigned to your cover will almost certainly ask you for descriptions or even a stock photo of your main characters. Thus, I will often search for this photo early in the writing process. Having a physical image helps keep me grounded and consistent throughout the creative process. There are many sites you can peruse for stock images, and you can purchase royalty-free images for a modest price. For example, for Joe I found the image at right on dreamstime.com.
While it’s inexpensive to purchase a royalty-free image–the one above cost about $1–you can download a copy for free that’s overprinted with the site name and logo. The original, uncropped photo of Joe with the Dreamstime logo, is at right. You can’t use that for public distribution since you’ve not paid for the rights, but it would suffice for your personal use while writing your novel.
All right. So I now have photos of what Joe and Kirsten look like and what the plot will be. Next, I need to describe them. But wait–there’s another challenge. Joe and Kirsten will likely both be point-of-view characters. The first chapter will thus almost certainly use one or the other for the point of view. Thus, I’ll need to describe the point of view character while in his or her point of view. That’s tricky.
Before we being writing, it’s useful to choose the point of view and to decide what information the scene needs to convey. Suppose we’re going to be in Joe’s point of view. Let’s start by listing what we’d like the reader to know about Joe’s appearance the first time they meet him. First would be his age and gender. Second might be that he’s muscular and obsessive about fitness. Third might be his stubble beard, dark hair, and maybe a mussed appearance to go with being a working stiff.
The challenge, of course, is to achieve this without using a trite contrivance like having him look in a mirror.
As with most things, it’s much easier to say what not to do than it is to say what to do when describing characters. An important point, I think, is don’t info-dump your descriptions. This info-dump consists of the narrator, standing outside the story, describing Joe.
Joe wore a rumbled Walmart suit and scuffed suede shoes. His broad shoulders and trim waist spoke of the hours he spent in the gym. He kept his hair short, with razor cut sides. His only concession to fashion was the carefully trimmed stubble on his chiseled cheeks.
That gives a detailed idea of what he looks like, but it violates the basic principal of third person limited: the reader is supposed to experience your fictional world through the senses of the POV character. If that’s Joe, he’s pretty shallow to be thinking these things about himself, yet I want Joe to be a more or less ordinary working stiff.
Consider instead the following paragraphs. You’ll find all of the above information except the “broad shoulders” and “chiseled cheeks,” both of which are a little over the top. Instead of an info dump, though, the information arises in a natural way, through the words and deeds of the characters.
Joe was lost in the depths old lady Marchan’s tax return. With his right hand he scrolled through her deductions, while with his left he flexed an exercise handgrip. He grimaced as a satisfying burn flamed in his forearm, but then the chime built into the doormat told him a customer had entered the office. He hid the grip under a stack of tax forms and turned to face the door. The new arrival was a willowy brunette who looked to be about his age or maybe a bit younger, say 22 or 23, with no makeup, icy, blue eyes and creamy skin that made him think of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
He rose to his feet, went around the desk, and extended his hand. “Good evening, ma’am. I’m Joe Hatcher.” Now that he was standing, she seemed taller than he’d first thought, nearly equal to his six feet. It was almost like she’d used her clothes and posture to make him underestimate her. He decided to flash his dimples. “What can I do for you?”
She barely touched his calloused hand. When she spoke, her frosty contralto prickled the hairs on the back of his neck. “I’m here to engage your services, Mister…Hatcher, did you say your name was?”
Jesus, what was this woman doing in a place like Acme Accounting Services? Like his suit, Joe was Walmart, and her outfit screamed Saks Fifth Avenue. He ran his fingers over his stubbled chin and nodded to the guest chair. “Have a seat and we’ll see what we can do.” He could use some cash, and it looked like she had plenty.
She perched on the edge of the plastic seat and chewed her lip. Her straight bangs fell across her brow and obscured her trendy silver eyeglasses, but her hair was buzzed short on the sides, nearly as short as Joe’s razor cut. It was like she couldn’t make up her mind between channeling Annie Lennox or Princess Di.
Her lips parted as if she were going to speak, but just then a car drove through the strip mall’s parking lot, its radio blaring hip-hop and its bass thumping. Her gaze dropped to Joe’s scuffed suede shoes, and her expression soured, as if she’d bit into an apple and found him inside.
He retreated back to his chair behind the desk and waited. Was she going to speak, or what? The overhead fluorescent light flickered and buzzed, casting a harsh glow over the cramped office. Silence stretched.
This is all first draft, and the rough edges of craft still stick out, but let’s take a look at what’s here. First, notice that it includes all the information about Joe’s appearance in the original list without stopping the story with an info-dump. Instead, we learn this in the natural flow of events. We even learn that he’s maybe a little more sophisticated than he lets on, since Kirsten’s skin reminds him of the marble in a famous Renaissance sculpture.
These paragraphs also include a description of Kirsten, including that her appearance is deceptive and contradictory. We get Kirsten’s appearance piecemeal, as we would when we meet a new person in real life: we pick up on bits as we interact with her. We’ve also got a hint of the class difference between Joe and Kirsten. Finally, we know from her icy expression and frosty tone that she’s cold.
It’s also worth noting that the opening sentences are designed to draw the reader into Joe’s head. He’s doing something—lost in the tax return—and exercising his grip. The latter leads to a burn in his arm, a subjective feeling that puts the readers squarely inside his head. The doormat chimes, he reacts, and the willowy brunette walks in. We get some final scene setting with the flickering light in the “cramped” office and the hip-hop music blasting from the parking lot of the strip mall.
There’s some tension building as she chews her lip and doesn’t speak. Hopefully, at this point the reader is hooked. What does the woman want? Clearly, Joe hopes to make some money, but the situation screams that there is risk—that the woman isn’t going to be honest with him. Joe’s manipulative, too, since he “flashes his dimples,” so we’ve already got conflict.
Kurt Vonnegut said that every sentence should advance plot or character, and preferably both. I’m not as skilled as Vonnegut by any stretch, but I think almost every sentence in the above accomplishes one or both of those goals while at the same time conveying information about setting and the appearance of the characters. This isn’t easy to do, but with some thought and attention to craft, it’s not impossibly difficult, either.