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?

I can’t.

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

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27 thoughts on “Why describe characters?”

  1. the fellow said that he rarely describes his characters,

    I’m a Describer, myself, but I have had numerous conversations with writing colleagues about The Evil of describing characters. There is, I’m told, no need to describe what a character looks like; eye color, skin color, hair color. . . Which utterly boggles me, though I can see why, in some instances, it could be “easier” — as in, “less heat to take” if Jo(lene) Reader really wanted to read a story about a pretty Asian boy and your story was about an ugly Anglo girl.

    The internet is having some. . .very interesting effects. . .on the craft of writing.

    1. Now, see, that’s interesting, because as a reader, stopping for a description of eye color does throw me out of the story BUT I don’t think that’s describing the minutiae the only way you can describe a character.

      1. If a reader has to “stop” for a description of eye color (or clothes, or weaponry) in one of my stories, I’m doing it wrong. It’s pretty easy to work this stuff in without stopping anybody. Stories that stop the action for pages or even paragraphs to describe the clothes lose me, too.

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal

          Ah. You know, you just clarified something for me. When people talk about the importance of describing characters, I always think about the examples that I notice while reading. In truth, when they are well done, it’s seamless.

          So my resistance to it isn’t to the descriptions, it’s to the the descriptions done badly.

    2. Not describe characters? Well, that would make visualizing the Liadens a bit confusing!

      I figure that when there’s culture-clash or culturally-fraught contact going on it’s even more important than elsewhere to make appearances clear, because the characters are aware of visual differences and what they mean culturally.

      1. I think it’s also easier to write when it’s a cultural clash because it’s absolutely certain that the character notices and responds.

        One of the things I have trouble with is that when writing I can only show the reader one thing at a time. I have to rely on them to remember everything that I’ve shown them before that point to build a picture, and to build part of the picture from their own imagination. So, when I think abstractly about character description, it feels like stopping the forward momentum to have the reader focus on an eye. Like, why are we looking at that now?

        But when I think about it in specific, including information as part of my character’s reactions to the world is completely natural.

  2. I think it’s easier to get into describing the protagonist when the story is in 3rd person. In 1st person, I tend to only do it if the details actually matter to the story. I have a YA book in which the protagonist is constantly losing his belt, which makes his pants instantly fall down. Even though it’s first person, I worked in how skinny he is before this happens so the reader won’t be surprised. Things like eye and hair color are less critical. And since he is a straight teenage boy, he checks out every girl he meets and describes her for the reader!

    As a reader, I do like to know gender right away, and age, but I am less insistent on knowing what they look like. There is one guy in my critique group, though, who always wants more info on what the characters look like, so he can picture them in his head. Unless appearance matters in the story, I figure readers can picture whoever they want to.

    1. I was totally in your camp, but realized that “important to the story” frequently meant, “hey! look! my character isn’t white!” Not always, but it did make me sit back on my heels and look at when I did character description.

      On the one hand, I don’t have to describe a character as white, because that’s what readers will default to. On the other, I’m not sure that I’m okay with reinforcing that white is norm, even unconsciously. As I said, no answers here, only questions for myself.

  3. Interesting post; I’ve thought about this a lot. My own inclination is to not describe too; I used to believe it left the window open for the reader to picture whatever they wanted, but now I question my motives (laziness? Worried about offending if I don’t do it right?). It didn’t help that early on in my writing I read Orson Scott Card’s “Character and Viewpoint,” where he backed me up on not describing characters. It’s something I now have to make myself do and still forget at times, but I can see how interesting character description is in the fiction I read, layering on more interest and complexity, so I’ve decided it’s an important part of Story now, for me at least.

    1. I also read Card’s Character and Viewpoint, and it’s a great book. The thing is, that there are times when that advice is absolutely right BUT as he points out elsewhere, anytime you make a choice you have to think about what the consequences or costs are.

      At the moment, I’m still doing very little description, but what has changed is that I’m really thinking about what my characters look like and what their history is before the moment of the story. I’m trying to be at least intentional about things.

      1. C&V was a very helpful book, I ought to have mentioned. That particular section just sort of reinforced my apathy on character description at the time, but years ago as a novice writer that might’ve been how I wished to perceive it. Glad to hear he’s spoken further on the subject.

        Intention is so important; I guess that’s the main thing–to be mindful of one’s execution. Sometimes character description just isn’t what’s essential in a particular story. Like Karen, I tend to describe far less in first person. And as you eloquently said, no answers here, but the question is a good one.

  4. An interesting question, I would come down on the side of describe as much as you need to but then I would personally be at pains to use odd references, cultural expectations, comments about clothes etc to guide the reader in the right direction. Dropping each clue in the order of my perceived order of importance, this happening as the story unfolds rather than an outright or sectioned description.

    1. Andy, yes, using other things to describe the character is pretty much the way I’m leaning too. The impressionism vs. photo-realism aspect of description. I also think it’s more true to describing the cultural experience that the character comes from than the minutia of their genetic output, you know?

  5. I think your friends point on it being the reader’s problem, deals with your need to educate the reader rather than entertain. That is not story telling, that’s preaching.

    If you want to preach, go ahead; just realize some of your readers aren’t interested in your overt opinions, some are. What you end up doing is preaching to the choir, those that agree with pronouncements will identify with you as author and your characters as parables. That happens at a perceptual level, not within the intrinsic level of your story.

    It is the choice of the author to limit or extend their reach. Why do we write, for what blend of personal reasons and maximizing audience?

    My current hero is an anarchist leprechaun named Shirker John. Perhaps with that much description I’ve already lost you.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      May I ask you to clarify before I respond. When you say “your need to educate the reader rather than entertain,” do you mean mine specifically or authors in general?

      1. My sloppy mistake, my sincere apologies.

        Let’s put that as an author’s need to educate, outside the story line. Not necessarily bad, it’s all but unavoidable to include our world view. Our mental associations naturally follow our environment, unless we work to rearrange them. I have found it cause to leave a book, when an author insists on presenting their preferred world view in a brutally direct fashion. I’m sure folks have left my works, and written critical reviews, for just such a reason.

        It is our choice as authors, but it should be made as consciously as other elements, not by reflex.

        1. I think we’re talking about two different issues here. One is prosletyzing, which I’m not advocating. The other is about being deliberate as an author. On that front, when you say, “It is our choice as authors, but it should be made as consciously as other elements, not by reflex,” I can agree. It’s important to think about why things are being done instead of just doing them willy-nilly.

  6. ::muttergrumble:: Stupid form ate my comment when I tried to register an avatar. Rewriting:

    I know you know about this, but posting here because it’s relevant: my own ways of describing characters, specific to race. I think it’s essential to describe characters — all characters, not just PoC — in order to counter that tendency among readers to default to white/male/straight/etc. That said, I don’t think the description has to be heavy-handed or lengthy. Sometimes only a single word is enough to convey your intentions.

    And really, your intentions are all you can deal with. As a writer, you’re meeting readers halfway; there’s nothing you can do to prevent them from bringing their own baggage to the table. In a post-colonial society (which applies to all English-speakers), that baggage will include internalized racism. I’ve discovered that even when I do describe characters explicitly, some readers will still apply their own default assumptions — and there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m working against that person’s lifetime of internalized messages which say white people are always the hero/ine, PoC shouldn’t appear unless the story is about race or racism, Asians are submissive, Latinas are hotblooded, etc., etc. All I can do is make my intentions clear, and if the reader insists on seeing it otherwise, then that is the reader’s problem, IMO.

  7. Maybe the solution to the problem of readers’ default assumption that protagonists are white is not so much to make a point of describing all characters, as it is to have more protagonists who aren’t white.

    I don’t think I am verbalizing that as well as I’d like; I know that folks who read and post here are already at least friendly to the idea of more POC characters in their own writing. What I’m trying to get at is that readers’ assumptions may not be so much rooted in their own prejudice as it is in simple experience. Movies aren’t the same as books, but in movies we can’t escape knowing what the protagonist looks like, and in movies, nonwhite protagonists are unusual enough to be remarkable, in the literal sense of the word. For the most part, only works that are overtly about race/ethnicity feature nonwhite protagonists. So it seems only natural that consumers of entertainment, including fiction, will make the default assumption that a protagonist is white when they don’t know. If we want to change that, maybe our focus need not be so much on character description for everyone, and should be more on having greater diversity among the characters in the entertainment we consume/create.

    (Or maybe I’m only saying that because I also fall into the non-describer camp. 😉 )

    Of course, since most writers in our culture seem to be white, I think that means we also need to be more forgiving when people attempt to write the other, both in terms of when they miss the mark, and in terms of “cultural appropriation.” At least when the attempt is well-intentioned. But that’s a whole nother can of worms.

  8. To weigh in again, an interesting example is ANANSI BOYS by Neil Gaiman (I might be spelling the title wrong). He never comes right out and specifies skin color, but it becomes clear over time that his protagonists are of African heritage.

  9. I like character descriptions, though I’ll admit it can bog down the story when overdone. I believe it was Zelazny who said to only describe three of a character’s features at a time. (He was a tall, ungainly man with high cheekbones and a thin mustache.) And then later you can add another three. But without any description I’m not sure readers will bother to supply what a character looks like for themselves. I don’t. I’m sure you’ve heard of a “white room” story, where characters interact in a world the reader can’t see because the writer didn’t describe it, and it just feels off. I guess you could call these “white room” characters. The dialogue between them might make them seem real, but they’re still not fully realized because you’re not sure what they look like. Also, some of the descriptions can often be worked into the action. “Fury burned in her dark eyes.” Or “His slender fingers gripped the knife.” Just saying that his fingers being slender, especially for a man, will lead the reader to subconsciously fill in other details, like perhaps he wasn’t particularly muscular.

    Great post, Mary. 🙂

  10. These are very interesting discussions. So far, most of what I wrote are scripts for a student theater company. I like to keep character descriptions very short, leaving out the race, age, and sometimes even gender. I often only have a job description or a relationship with another character listed. Part of that is I don’t want details that are not absolutely crucial to the story to affect the casting, and another is I believe that, if you cannot figure out what a character is like (personality-wise) through the dialog, then I am not doing my job right.

    I do this because I want the actors to bring whatever they have and whoever they are into these characters. I don’t define their race and age, but the actors and directors can decide on that and create new dynamics by tweaking those elements. While this worked for us, I guess writing short stories or novels are different because there are no actual actors (until you sell a million copies resulting in film adaptations, that is, hehe). I haven’t really thought about this too much, but yeah, I habitually leave out this kind of information and never really thought about what impact that has.

    The fact I like writing pigs, bears, bunnies, and talking objects doesn’t help either. =P

    When I read stories, I guess I do assume characters to be white if I am reading it in English, and especially if the stories take place in areas that are predominately white. If I am reading a story that takes place in Japan, I assume the characters to be Asian, even though we all know there are white people living in Japan too. When it’s not clear, I assume the statistical majority.

    But really, that is only when I have to mentally picture these characters in more details. When I read, I don’t really form detailed mental images of what the characters look like or how they dress. To use a real geeky analogy, my brain does not have enough processing power to render everything in real time. =P The shapes, forms, complexions, costumes, colors are not clear in my mental image. I just sort of keep tabs on the relative location, actions, and emotions (this is a big one for me) of each character. That’s all that I am capable of processing, and that’s all that matters to me. Yeah, I might picture them in a little more detail if the authors slows me down with some descriptions. It’s like they zoomed in on a character or panned across a scenery, so I can pay attention and soak that in. But once the action resumes, I tend to push those aside.

    Am I making any sense? Hehe.

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