Character Descriptions: All At Once or Over Time?

Question: Just wondering what your opinion is on character description. I’ve read some reviews that cite the lack of a description and I’ve also heard in my IRL writing group about it.

 As writers and as readers, how do you feel about character descriptions? Do you prefer to get them out of the way in a brief paragraph or to have breadcrumbs dropped as you go? Or does it not matter at all? Do you prefer to let your own imagination create the flesh and blood?

This is a good question to ask and one that I think a lot of writers need to be very careful with when they are writing their manuscript. Whether it is a short story or a novel you are writing, character descriptions are key to making your story come to life.

For me, character descriptions are as dependent on the point in the narrative and the circumstances of the story as any other creative part of the process. Would you spend a page describing how a spider repeatedly tried and failed to climb up the side of a vehicle during a car chase? Would you stop to describe the faint smell of sulphur in the air during the middle of a kissing scene? Would you stop the final battle scene mid-way through to explain why the third pikeman from the left was hobbling on his right leg?

The answer to all of these questions is – maybe.

It depends entirely on what you are trying to gain from the story. If you’re writing a comedy, you might well decide to go off on a tangent about the spider if you wanted to make the reader understand how terribly boring and uneventful the car chase was. You might well talk about the smell of sulphur in the air if a dragon was about to appear to eat the two lovers. You might well distract from the battle scene if the fact that the third pikeman from the left has a dodgy right leg will determine the result of the battle.

With character descriptions it is much the same thing and it really is a matter of practice. Some writers will tell you that using long descriptions is a very schoolboy thing to do, others will tell you that long descriptions are the way to go. Ultimately, however, it does come down to the scenario so, in hope of helping some of you decide what type of description to use for your characters (a long paragraph immediately when they are introduced or short snippets spread out over the story) I will use two characters from my latest short, The Butcher of Barclays Hollow, as case studies.

The names of the two characters I am going to talk about are Conroy and Reverend Babcock.

Conroy is the protagonist of my story, the hero if you will. In this short mystery story, Conroy is the detective figure although he is rather reluctant to be that person. As such, I wanted him to be an unappealing and disinterested as possible. He’s a large man, pudgy fingers, broad shoulders but strong and quite intimidating to look at. He’s not educated and hated by everyone around him, which naturally makes him not like anyone else either. And finally, he is Irish, the main reason for his unpopularity.

So how do I introduce Conroy?

Well the first thing to consider is that he is my main character. I am going to be spending the vast majority, if not all, of the story following this character around. I don’t need to reveal everything about him to my reader in the first couple of hundred words. In fact, for the most part, I can tell the reader about him by having the character show the reader. He’s a strong man, so I have him do something that requires a lot of strength. He’s intimidating to look at, so I have other characters shy away from him. He’s Irish so maybe I make reference to his accent or another character could call him ‘Irishman’.

The possibilities are endless, but the important thing is that this is the character we are going to be following so I need to hold back enough information that leaves my readers asking questions. Why did he do that? Who is this random character whose name he called out? Why won’t anyone talk to him?

In this instance, the long paragraph of description would not help in the slightest. If I spend my first hundred words explaining that Conroy is hated because he’s Irish and that everyone is trying to kick him out of the village, what is there left for the reader to discover on their own?

On the other hand…

Reverend Babcock is a minor character – a catalyst of sorts. It is his appearance that sparks Conroy to begin his investigation. The first time our main character comes across the vicar is when he is sat in the shadows of Conroy’s room, hidden by the back of an old armchair.

Now this is the perfect example of when the long description can be used to great effect. Babcock is being revealed to the reader as he is to Conroy – in essence, the reader is very much in Conroy’s shoes as he creeps his way around the outside of the room and the figure of Babcock is slowly revealed to him. So, as Conroy creeps around, we can use long descriptions to show what Conroy himself is seeing.

However, whilst using a long description here is useful, the writer must be careful to only describe what is important to the character. If it is important that he is an elderly vicar with arthritis in his left hand then describe this. If it isn’t important that the vicar crossed a field to get to Conroy’s house, then we don’t need to describe the tiny speck of mud on his right boot that indicates this, unless of course the main character is going to point it out in a Sherlock Holmes fashion as part of their own character development (although on a personal note that has been done to death so unless you’re planning on your detective being wrong in his assumptions, don’t do it).

And finally, most importantly, just because I have used a long description to reveal the Reverend, it doesn’t mean I can’t throw in some incidental descriptions during the flow of the action (or even some descriptions that turn out to be key to the narrative). In fact, I would almost recommend it, particularly if the main character is finding things out bit by bit – for example, Conroy is unlikely to know straight away if Babcock has a scar on his chest or if he is wearing something underneath his vicar’s garb so there would be no point describing that if Conroy doesn’t know it himself. But he could discover that at a later date…

Always remember whose perspective you are writing from as that will often help you decide what type of character description is warranted for any particular character.

So there you have it. Two different characters with two different roles in the story arc and two different ways that I have chosen to describe them. But that is not the be all and end all. Some of my characters get quite detailed descriptions, others don’t get barely more than a line or two and it depends on so many things.

The best advice I can give any of you out there is to plan out exactly what your characters are like long before you ever write them in to your story and make sure that those characters are fitting for the story you are trying to tell. At least that way when you come to describing them, you are not only consistent but the descriptions are also relevant to the plot.

Every week I will be scouring the internet for writers’ questions to try to answer in my posts. If you have a specific question that you would like my opinion on, please leave it in the comments section and I will address it in a future post. 

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