To Describe Your Main Character or Not: That is the Question…

When writing a story, your goal is to paint such a vivid word picture that your readers will be able to see and experience everything on the page as they read it. Your goal, then, is to paint as many vivid images as possible. To do that, you have to describe settings, characters, sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and the list goes on. The more detailed, the easier it is for people to picture the world within your book.

But remember that there is such a thing as “too much description”. Give too many details of a character or setting, and you could lose your reader’s interest. Which leads me to the topic of this post: how important is it to describe your main character?

Most authors fall into one of two camps:

Describe the main character in proper detail — This type of author wants you to know EXACTLY what his/her character looks like. The Harry Potter books spring to mind. J.K. Rowling made it very clear:

“Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. … Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape …. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.”

With this type of writing, it’s easy to get into over-describing characters. Be wary not to give unnecessary descriptions that don’t help to tell you more about not just the way the character looks, but the way they think, feel, and behave.

Give only the important details — This type of author wants you to know the most important elements of their character, but leaves the rest up to YOUR imagination. The Riyira Chronicles by Michael J. Sullivan and The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan are both examples of this. The authors give you the important details (Rand al’Thor’s flaming red hair, Nynaeve’s braid, Royce Melbourne’s scowl), but they leave the rest up to your imagination.

You’d think this wouldn’t work, but the human mind is actually designed to “fill in the blanks”. As you picture the character in your mind’s eye, your mind will paint in the missing details (nose, jaw, eyes, forehead, hair, etc.) instantaneously. You will have a mental image of the main character, and that’s the image that will stick with you.

What’s awesome about this is that EVERYONE has the image that they want to see. Everyone’s perception of “beautiful”, “handsome”, “strong”, “ugly”, and other descriptions are different (as we can see here), so we fill in the blanks with the details that we think best fit the character. This helps to make it easier for us to relate to the character, as we’ve played a hand in his/her creation.

Which do you prefer: a complete picture of the character, or only the most important details?


AndyPGuest post by author/editor Andy Peloquin

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