Drive Write: Character Descriptions

Drive Write podcast

Drive Write: Episode 8 – Character Descriptions

This week on Drive Write, I talk about describing characters for your readers. One of the critiques that I’ve received in the past is that I fail to give enough physical description of my characters. I still think that there are plenty of situations when it’s more appropriate to leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. However, I will concede that a reader should at least have enough descriptive context to form their own mental image of characters and the settings that they’re in.

Like most things, this can be done well or poorly. In today’s cast, I give an example of a classic descriptive-blunder that I made in an early draft of Cravings. Let me know in the comments if you have description tips or pitfalls to share of your own.

7 thoughts on “Drive Write: Character Descriptions

  1. Hey Andy, thanks for the ep. Enjoyable as usual.

    I wanted to offer a counter-argument, or perhaps just a lament if it’s true that reviewers are taking marks off for the fact of non-description, independent of anything else.

    It seems to me that, like anything, the degree of character description required by a story is entirely bound up in the requirements of the story itself. Many stories are perfectly well served without knowing what a character looks like. Sometimes, in fact, I think it robs the reader of a certain amount of imaginative agency to provide much of this.

    That’s a long way of saying : description of characters is part of the story, should say something about the character, the world, the next few minutes. Sometimes it’ll be saying something untrue (presenting someone as slight, weak looking, and later having them be physically dangerous, e.g.) The reader will necessarily make assumptions based on their (and their society’s) biases, and it’s often fun to subvert those (though it’s harder and I find if i have a very clear picture of a character in my head, major, abrupt modifications don’t take hold without annoyance, at best).

    Anyway, I was particularly struck by this because of two recent experiences. One, is the excerpt from Gene Wolfe’s new book, in which the main character is described not at all, and in fact i believe there’s only one sentence which reveals categorically that it’s a Him. Prior to that some details of behavior implied it (standing at a window naked, attraction to a woman), but there are those biases. Point being, in 7400 words, I have no idea what the person looks like.

    The other is the recent book Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie (highly recommended, btw) in which throughout the entire novel you learn nothing about the physical characteristics of the MC. In fact, because of a (tricky, almost genius) bit of linguistic magic, you don’t even know if they’re physically male or female.

    Now, the former is Gene effing Wolfe and the latter is certainly a seriously remarkable debut feat, so perhaps it’s just that doing without the MC’s descriptions is kind of a next-level ability. I’m certainly nowhere near advanced enough to say. Perhaps if you’re not describing the MC, you just need to give the reader other strong cues to their personality, abilities, etc., and that’s just a lot harder (though I fear that’s only due to ingrained expectations).

    I admit to being somewhat troubled to learn that reviewers should care specifically about knowing what the MC looks like. If it’s shorthand for “I wasn’t invested, didn’t know who this was,” well, ok, but I’d rather just hear that. If not, it seems like a serious shortcoming of imagination.

    And at worst, it’s basically a crutch, in which the reader feels the need to have physical characteristics spelled out in order to shore up personal or social norms they expect to see (or at least see subverted, reversed, denied, …) and feel adrift without.

    The more I think about it, the more I feel inclined to lean light on description, attempting to show the character as a person rather than a collection of physical attributes, unless those attributes are required. I guess that’s a political/ethical stance as much as anything, and wouldn’t stick to it if it was crippling the story in some way, but I’m uneasy with the notion that an undescribed MC is a categorical flaw in and of itself.


    • I really agree with you, categorically and on every point. I think part of my problem is that, historically, I’ve leaned too far that direction.

      Obviously, none of this applies if you specifically choose to avoid description to accomplish some story goal. But in general, I think for the story on the page to accurately reflect the story in my head, the reader will benefit from some description of person and place. Provided, of course, that the description is actually doing work and not simply there for the sake of being there.

      In the context of the WOTF comments, I don’t think that Farland is advocating for exposition on the physical characteristics of characters and settings. Not at least as some sort of check box that must be ticked off the list of things that make a decent story. Given my innate tendencies, I wouldn’t either. However, I do think that my own writing is stronger now that I’m paying attention to which physical characteristics I do describe for the reader.

      For me – right now at my current level of talent and understanding – I want to make sure that I include enough physical description of character and place to;

      1) Leverage those elements to advance the story, and
      2) Avoid awkward situations where the reader may be yanked out of the story because I let them form an inaccurate picture.

      Like… I’d never want a reader to get three chapters into a book and then be all, “Whoa! I didn’t realize that guy is three-times her age. I thought that they were contemporaries and perhaps a romance was budding. Now he just seems creepy.”

      Does that make any sense?

      I really like your comment and I think that I should probably do a follow up podcast. You’ve helped me firm up my own thoughts on the issue better than my initial stream-of-conscience ramble.

      Thanks, Kerry!

  2. Good points all. Ultimately, I do think it’s probably important for the author to have a pretty clear picture of their characters, at least most of the time, for most stories. I agree that one of the things that can really throw me as a reader is what you describe, where well into the story my impression of the character (which forms unbidden) is upended. If the story goes long enough with lots of ambiguity about the character’s physical characteristics, it may sort of have to commit to that ambiguity to avoid that exact clash.

    Very much worth being attentive to.

    And though I’m sure you’ve already seen it, I figure I’ll point out Chuck Wendig’s post of a day or so ago which outlines his thoughts on Character creation. There’s a segment there regarding the physical characteristics, which bears on this convo. Anyway, certainly worth checking out, I reckon.

      • Oh, then I’m glad to help… that’s the right one. I must admit, I only listen to Writing Excuses, Mur Lafferty and you when it comes to podcasts, but I am one of those RSS nuts who reads (or at least skims) several hundred articles a day, and terrible minds is one I always enjoy.

        I’m certainly going to take advantage of NaNoWriMo to improve my discipline. Whether I turn out anything like a novel, or the word target, we’ll see… I’ll consider it a minor win if I manage to double my current output. Everything else is gravy.

      • Double it!

        I used NaNoWriMo to finish Cravings last year. I didn’t even bother to keep track of the word count, though. This year I am going to try and hit the 50k. I just want to say that I did it.

        Achievement unlocked ‘n’ all that.

        We’ll tackle it together! =)

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