Why describe characters?
I was having a conversation with a fellow writer about Justine Larbalestier’s post, “Why my protagonists aren’t white” and the fellow said that he rarely describes his characters, unless it’s important, so that the reader is free to imagine them at will.
I can understand this choice, because I’ve done it myself and for the same reasons. But this isn’t as simple as it sounds.
It’s pretty well recognized that in the absence of other information, readers will default to assume a character is white, male and mid-thirties. When I pointed this out to my fellow writer, from my soapbox position of the newly enlightened, he said, “That’s the reader’s problem, not the writers.”
Now, let me ask you… Can you describe any other misinterpretation of a story, due to a missing detail, where that would be a good answer?
There’s two things going on here, 1) by only describing my characters when they aren’t white, or aren’t tall, or aren’t medium-build, I wind up reinforcing the idea that these are the norm and everyone else is other, 2) because of the way reader perception works, I wind up creating more homogenous casts than I’d like. In other words, I’m being a sloppy writer.
My problem is that I don’t like reading a lot of character descriptions, so I have some serious resistance to recognizing the effects of my choice as a writer to not describe characters. Granted, in certain short stories, slowing down to provide physical descriptions will mess with the pace, but as with any detail, what I ought to understand the consequences of what I chose to put on the page. And, as importantly, the details I leave off the page.
I’m still trying to find a balance with this and can offer no answers. Fortunately, there are people who have been thinking about this and have intelligent things to say.
Recommended reading: On Writing Identity, and the Need Therof