When to Shut Up and When to Talk: The Key to Character Description

I’ve been thinking a lot about my main character lately.

I’m writing a novel. Did I tell you that? And it has a main character, and I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately.

Mostly, how much to say about him. Not his internal state, of course, or else we’d have no novel. It’s his external state that’s besting me. Not that I can’t pin it down. I know every inch of him like I crafted him from marble myself. I wonder, though, how much of this to share with the reader.

The Going Theories on Fictional Character Descriptions

I’ve heard you shouldn’t over-describe your characters. You rob your reader of the chance to insert their own imagination, and most importantly, to connect. (Unsolicited opinion: I’m convinced this is how Twilight made it big. Bella was literally a stick of playdough that any angsty 14 year old girl could see as herself). A nosy woman in a café a with a pointed chin, prickled lips, mousey brown hair, protruding collar bones and stubby eyelashes is exactly that. A nosy woman in a café with brown hair and a bad listening habit might be your stepmother, or your office mate, or that mom who rubs you the wrong way at the PA meetings. One is just a figure (well-described, albeit). The other has your emotional interest, possibly even investment.

But I long to tell you about my main character. I can see his fingers down to the knots of his knuckles, and I wish so badly for you to see them, too.

So what’s the answer? As usual, I turned to the greats for help. And you know what I found? Character descriptions from uber-famous books that ran the gamut, from dripping with detail to a passing wisp of description. Let’s take a look. We’ll start with the soggier descriptions. I was surprised to find some of them to be my favorites:

Detailed Character Descriptions from Famous Novels

  1. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams

“He was not conspicuously tall, his features were striking but not conspicuously handsome. His hair was wiry and gingerish and brushed backward from the temples. His skin seemed to be pulled backward from the nose. There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was. Perhaps it was that his eyes didn’t seem to blink often enough and when you talked to him for any length of time your eyes began involuntarily to water on his behalf. Perhaps it was that he smiled slightly too broadly and gave people the unnerving impression that he was about to go for their neck.”

2. Dune, Frank Herbert:
“Through the door came two Sardukar herding a girl-child who appeared to be about four years old. She wore a black aba, the hood thrown back to reveal the attachments of a stillsuit hanging free at her throat. Her eyes were Fremen blue, staring out of a soft, round face. She appeared completely unafraid and there was a look to her stare that made the Baron feel uneasy for no reason he could explain.”

3. The Black Cauldron, Lloyd Alexander:

“He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes – just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t’other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor – an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.”

4. Bleak House, Charles Dickens:

“He [Old Mr. Turveydrop] was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear.”

Now let’s take a look at some examples of famous character descriptions that don’t hit you over the head.

Sparse Character Descriptions from Famous Novels

1. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

“He did not look like anything special at all.”

2. The Great Gatsby, Scott F. Fitzgerald:

He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

3. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver:

“Mama Bekwa Tataba stood watching us—a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out
like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat

miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left.”

4. James Lee Burke, Neon Rain:

“His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder.”

5. A Drink Before the War, Dennis Lehane:

“Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”

So where does all that leave us?

I’m afraid in the hazy world of “it depends.” I know, it’s my least favorite answer on the internet, too. But don’t lose heart, because we’re actually going to break down what it depends on and what route to take when.

When Detailed Character Descriptions are Right for You

You might notice a majority of first bunch share the literary genre of science fiction. Full disclosure: that was not on purpose. I think with science fiction, your readers are accustomed to heavier descriptions because you can’t have a sci-fi novel without world building. And you can’t have world building without a hefty amount of detail. The same is true for period pieces. If you’re writing about a time when writing in general was lengthier (i.e. Dickins), again, your readers are likely on board for this level of wordiness.

A more detailed description also works when the character being described is a more minor character. This is because background characters don’t require an emotional investment on our part as the reader. Let’s say the author is trying to describe his main character’s apprehension as she walks down Skid Row alone at night. Delving into the grim appearance of a resident who stops her helps to build tension and shines a light on her trepid internal state. Which leads to me to our next instance:

When the detail indicates more than the physical. Like all the words on your page, their sole function is always to drive the plot forward. The same is true of character details. A character having blue eyes isn’t necessarily important. However, if you happen to be Frank Hebert writing Dune, and you mention a young character’s eyes are Fremen blue (the planet’s native race), with an unafraid stare that makes a grown man nervous– now you’re talking.

IN SUMMATION: Writing lengthy character descriptions work when:

-It’s befitting of your genre.

-It’s reserved for background characters as a way of creating atmosphere.

-You drive the plot forward by showing the significance of the physical, versus telling about what it is.

When Sparse Character Descriptions are Right for You

While I’m intrigued by the longer descriptions in the first block, I’m deeply moved by Jonathan Safran Foer’s, “He did not look like anything special at all.” It makes me heart lurch. (Disclosure: this is from one of my all time favorite novels and every human being should put whatever trash they’re reading down and buy “Everything is Illuminated.” Now.) I think that minimal descriptions like this work when the few words used tell us more about who the character is than what he looks like. “He had blue eyes and light brown hair,” is just as many words, but somehow says a lot less, doesn’t it?

Of course, all your main characters can’t be walking eraser marks. Eventually, we’ll have to tell our readers enough that they can form for themselves a picture of our heroes and villains. One great way to do this is to reveal a few signature characteristics outright, and unfurl the rest as the reader makes her way through your text. This usually involves a few trademark visuals that define our character. For Harry Potter, it’s unruly black hair, green eyes, and a peculiar scar. For Theo Decker of The Goldfinch, it’s light brown eyes and horn-rimmed glasses. Slowly, we find out smaller bits as the books continue: we learn that Theo is actually quite handsome, and that Harry is particularly scrawny. Instead of dumping a list of descriptive traits on us from the get go, the authors give us small nuggets along the way, allowing us to weave the details into the characters we’ve already envisioned for ourselves.

Last, these brief descriptions work because so often they say more about the nature of the character. Take this description from “A Drink Before War.”

“Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man, the kind who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”

We might not know Sterling’s eye color or the shape of his nose, but I’ll be damned if we don’t have a crystal clear feeling about him as a man. I can feel the crushing weight of his handshake. I can feel the threat of violence in his stature. And I can see a man like that. Heck, most of us know a man like that, making the story that much more personal and our investment that much more likely.

IN SUMMATION: Writing sparse character descriptions work when:

-You choose words wisely, picking ones that evoke deeper feeling.

-You sprinkle fitting attributes along your story as you go.

-Your visceral description insinuates more about the kind of person you’re describing, as opposed to just what they look like.

What’s Your Natural Tendency Tend to Be?

I’d love to know: what do you gravitate towards in your own writing or reading? Do you think there’s a set way that’s best? Share it with me in the comments–I’d love to hear your opinion.

One response to “When to Shut Up and When to Talk: The Key to Character Description”

  1. Oh wow, it’s obvious how much work you’ve put into this. Everything from the research to piecing this story together must’ve took quite a while. Great on you for providing so much value.

    I myself tend to be an under-describer. But the long descriptions you’ve highlighted were amazing. And they were books I enjoyed reading too.

    Anyway, thanks for this post!


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