The Importance of Describing Characters

A strange irony I’ve discovered about myself is that, despite being a writer, I’m horrible at describing people. If you ask me to describe someone I met, the result would be something like this:

“He had brown eyes, kind of dirty blond or brownish hair. It wasn’t long, but wasn’t shaved or anything, either. He was maybe a little taller than me, and…”

And that’s it. Eye color, hair color, height. And none of it particularly useful in identifying a person’s appearance as unique. How many people did I just describe, after all?

Unfortunately, this weakness carries over into my writing. Settings I can describe. Character emotions I can delve into through interior monologues, or actions that push those emotions to the surface. Backstories I can reveal subtly and unobtrusively. Dialogue I can make vivid and lifelike. But ask me to tell you what a character looks like and I’m left stumbling over vague references to hair and eye color. I’ve even looked through some older character profiles (ok, they’re not really all that old) and found characters that I never bothered to endow with any more detailed of an appearance than “blue eyes, blond hair.” Obviously, that needs to change.

Part of what’s held me back from delving into character appearance already is the fact that it’s never been important to me when I’m reading a novel. I find that I skim over descriptions of physical appearance and don’t even remember them later. I don’t care what the character looks like, I care what she says, what she does, what happens to her. So when it comes to my own writing, I don’t feel compelled to give my readers every detail of physical appearance.

Yet I know that not everyone reads the same way I do, with a voracious hunger to devour the plot and pick it apart piece by piece. Lots of people (so I’m told) create detailed mental images of everything they read. So they have very specific pictures of what the main characters look like formed in their mind. If I don’t give them a description, they’ll be forced to make it up on their own or go through the whole story with fuzzy blob (marked only by hair and eye color) for the protagonist. That would look awful in a movie, obviously, so I’m sure it’s just as bad playing on the mental screens of you visual readers.

So, with all of this in mind, I’m setting out to reform my writing. To describe the fine details of how my characters look, including not only hair and eye color, but face structure, hair texture, eye shape, body type, and more. It’s hard, because I don’t even have a clear picture of these things in my own mind when I create a character, but I hope my readers will appreciate it and that my stories will come alive because of it.

What do you think? Are detailed character descriptions important? Annoying? Necessary? A waste of time? Will you easily lose interest in a book that doesn’t paint a vivid picture of the main characters? Or do you skim such descriptions and tend to let them slip from your mind?

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3 thoughts on “The Importance of Describing Characters

  1. I think that if a character’s appearance is greatly linked to their personality or role in the story, then yes, delving into physical appearance is important. For example, if you’re writing a story about a creepy old man (not that all old men are creepy, of course! Most are quite lovely in fact) you could enhance the creepiness by describing his appearance in a creepy way.

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    1. Sounds like you think of it a lot like I do. Appearance is important when it’s relevant to the plot and not so much otherwise. A good example of that I’ve found recently is in Sharon Cramer’s book The Execution where she describes a character’s face in great detail because it turns out this new character is the twin of the main character – and the MC never knew he had a twin. Definitely an appearance that’s relevant to the plot!

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