18 Character Description

Having looked at location description, we now turn our attention to character description. Many of the rules of thumb applied to location description will also apply to character description.

As the reader progresses through your book, the reader will be constantly creating and recreating a picture of the current scene in his or her mind’s eye. Each scene will usually consist of both the location and the characters. It is your job, as the author, to provide adequate character description.

So what is adequate?

In short, you need to provide enough description that the reader can paint a picture of the character in his or her mind. The same rule applies here as for the location description: the more important the character, the more description that is required.

So, for example, your main character should have a detailed, multilayered description. This should consist of not only a basic physical description but also the character’s physical tics and traits. On the flip side, minor characters should have description levels that match their importance (or lack of it). If the character is a fleeting component of a minor scene, then a simple “the postman” description may well be enough.

One rule of thumb to use when writing character description is that, if a character appears in just one scene, then include just a simple one-line description. However, the more scenes in which the character appears, the more description is required.

As an example, here’s the opening description for the old man, who is one of the two main characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. This description is in the second paragraph of the story:

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Let’s go back to our mate John for an example.

Imagine that you are writing a book in which a package has been sent to John. It is important that the reader knows John received the package; therefore, you write this short scene:

The ring of the doorbell echoed down the sparse hallway. John stepped into the hall and walked to the closed door. Turning the brass handle, he swung open the door. On the doorstep stood the uniformed postman, a brown crumpled package in his hands.

“John Smith?” the postman said, looking at the address label.

“Yep,” John said.

“Here you go,” the postman said, handing over the parcel and turning to leave.

“Thanks,” John said, as he closed the door.

In this section, the postman is “uniformed”. This is the postman’s only appearance in the book. He was nothing more than a tool to get the parcel into John’s hands. Therefore, there is no need to layer in a detailed description.

Now … let’s look at another example.

Let’s take the same scene, but, this time, the postman is of more importance. It turns out the postman is actually a hitman, who is following John. A few scenes later we will see John going to the pub for a drink with this friends, and he’s going to bump into the postman (who is following him) but is not going to recognize him. However, we want the keen-eyed reader to make the link.

Suddenly the importance of the postman has increased. Yet, we face one small problem. If we were to layer in a very detailed description, the reader would instantly perk up, sensing something else is going on here. We’ve been trained to match the description level with importance. More on that later.

So, in this example, we are looking to balance the description with enough details to make an impression but not so much that the reader is instantly suspicious.

The ring of the doorbell echoed down the sparse hallway. John stepped into the hall and walked to the closed door. Turning the brass handle, he swung open the door. On the doorstep stood the uniformed postman, a brown crumpled package in his hands. The postman was taller than John, so his smiling face beamed downward, adorned with a long handlebar moustache.

“John Smith?” the postman said, looking at the address label.

“Yep,” John said.

“Here you go,” the postman said, handing over the parcel and turning to leave.

“Thanks,” John said, as he closed the door.

This time we’ve added in a new line of description. Though not subtle, it is enough for the reader to paint a new picture of the postman. It is also enough that, when we mention “handlebar moustache” later (after a couple more scenes), the reader may make the connection.

One little tip … the postman in this scene is actually based on someone I know, who, incidentally, is not a postman. So when I wrote this scene, I had an image of my friend in my mind. Though I only added the moustache detail in the text, the character’s appearance is fully detailed in my mind’s eye.

The final type of character description is for your main characters. If you look back at the location description section, you will see the concept of layering description. The same layering concept applies for your main characters. Though we want you to build detailed descriptions of your characters’ features and actions, we don’t want to do it all at once. In fact, we want to do the opposite.

When a major character is first introduced to the reader, you should include a couple of lines of description. At this point, you are focusing on the major features. You are trying to paint a very rough outline of the character, just enough for the reader to conjure an image in his or her head.

For example, “six foot tall, blond hair and blue eyes” will be enough in the first instance.

Then, over the following scenes, you need to start layering in more detailed descriptions. These will not only be physical descriptions but also habits and tics that will bring your character to life. If your character strokes his beard while thinking, then you need to add this in early on. A good place to do this is via beats.

You must resist the temptation to go overboard. A line or two of description every couple scenes will be enough. You must not overload the reader.

The problem is that each time you add a layer of description, you are triggering the reader to redraw the image in his or her mind’s eye. If you change too quickly, or too often, you will just confuse the reader.

If done methodically, this system will allow you to build a complex series of physical attributes for your characters. Over time the reader will pick up on the traits and allow you to add another level to your storytelling.

“Remember that guy in the pub with the moustache?” said John, stroking his beard. “I am sure I’ve seen him before.”

It has already been said that the level of description must match the importance of the character, but this is worthy of a little further examination. Over the years readers have been trained to see low levels of description indicate that the character in question is unimportant.

This is the Red Shirt principle.

In the ’60s sci-fi series Star Trek, it becomes an in-joke that any red-shirted crew member, joining Kirk and his team for an off-ship planet visit, was doomed to a grisly death. A fan, with too much time on his hands, worked out that, of the fifty-nine crewmembers killed in the original series, forty-three (73%) were wearing red shirts.

Of course, red shirts were just that, characters wearing red shirts. They had no backstory, no development and sometimes no name.

Your novel will be packed with red shirts, characters with so little description that the reader will see them but ignore them. The postman with the moustache was a red shirt. These are the glue that holds your plot together.

Now … a word of warning.

In some stories you will want to trick the reader; you will want to sneak an important character into a scene but disguise them as a red shirt. As a rule, this should be avoided. There is no more guaranteed way to upset a reader than to have a red shirt turn out to be a major part of a plot.

Remember the unwritten rule: the more description, the more important the character.

The reader knows this rule; the reader has been trained over the years of consuming books and movies to understand that characters with no backstory can be ignored. It is an unwritten convention. If you simply break this convention to trick the reader, the reader will be annoyed.

But what happens if you want to hide a character in plain sight?

Perhaps you are writing a crime genre book, and you want the killer in the plot without the reader knowing it yet. What you mustn’t do in this situation is make the character a Red Shirt. Instead, you can use stereotyping.

Stereotyping is when you call upon a well-understood character type to shortcut the description process. If I say “frail old man” or “huge bodybuilder” or “grumpy teenager”, they all conjure up a distinctive image. A stereotype.

So you should routinely use stereotypes to shortcut your description process. In fact, the best way to wield a red shirt is via a stereotype. Look at our postman (without the moustache). When I said “postman”, you conjured up a ready-made image. I didn’t need to say anything else; you had already done all the work.

However, you can also use this stereotype to distract the reader.

This is not the same as tricking the reader by making a red shirt a major character; this is using the reader’s stereotype to hide a character in plain sight.

In Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady, Dahl gives us a master class in stereotyping.

The story goes like this: The main character, Billy Weaver, stays at a bed-and-breakfast ran by a charming old lady. The twist to the story is that … (look away now if you’ve not read the story) the old lady is a serial killer who plans to poison and stuff Billy.

The problem Dahl faces is how can he trick the reader into thinking the landlady is harmless until the last possible moment? The sleight of hand comes in the unexpected behavior of the landlady. Dahl intentionally has his killer in plain sight.

The first we see of the landlady is this description:

She was about forty-five or fifty years old, and, the moment she saw him, she gave him a warm, welcoming smile.

Then on the next page:

She was halfway up the stairs, and she paused with one hand on the stair-rail, turning her head and smiling down at him with pale lips.

Add to this the narrator’s insistence that she is a “dotty lady”, and who would expect her of anything harmful?

The power of Dahl’s writing is that he gives us what we expect.

The narrator TELLS us that she is a dotty old woman, and we believe him. Why wouldn’t we? Dahl wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He wouldn’t lie to us, would he? Dahl plays on our stereotypes. We are told it’s an old woman, so we see an old woman.

The result is a memorable twist. This all said the foundational principles for character description are not complicated.

Here are the rules:

  • If you are describing your main character, layer in description over a number of scenes.
  • If the character will play a part in more than one scene, add a few lines of description (and perhaps one layer or two).
  • If the character is a red shirt, then less is more.


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