Describing our characters

The author of the book I am reading right now has a tendency to supply a physical description when introducing a new character. His physical descriptions include what the character is wearing though, like advanced airport security, he will happily penetrate the clothes to the body beneath – especially if the character is female. Here are two examples.

‘How beautiful she was in her pink silk dressing gown, which allowed a glimpse of her shapely curves and the delicate outline of her breasts with their prominent nipples. Her long black hair was gathered in a ponytail, leaving her face free. Her eyes were large and dark, her feet were bare and her nails were painted bright red.’

‘Her dark blue linen suit and her white silk blouse accentuated a nice figure, and with her sensual lips, well-groomed shoulder-length red hair and tanned complexion, she looked like a film star.’

In case I am giving the wrong impression here, the author writes crime novels, not erotic fiction. But on the evidence so far, he is more interested in female bodies than male, though he does also make reference to what some of his male characters are wearing.

I question this approach on two levels. The first is whether, immediately on meeting a new character, we should expect a physical description. It is surely an unsubtle way of going about things. After a while, it comes across as the verbal equivalent of painting by numbers. Character – description. In a third person novel the author can tell us directly what a person looks like, and he has every right to do so.  But the fact that we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.  (I can hit my thumb with a hammer but it isn’t recommended.)

The second question is whether we need so much physical description anyway. Someone could be the body beautiful before us in all her glory and dressed to match, but if her ears are bookends for a vacuum why would we care? So I would hope that we vary the amount of physical description we supply according to how significant it is. I’m told that some people, in their choice of clothing, are making a statement – I am an important person, I am successful, I am powerful, I have a body to die for, I have a body to pay for. In such cases describe them by all means, but not all at once and perhaps, on occasion, through the eyes of another character in the book?

4 thoughts on “Describing our characters

  1. Hmm, not my kind of book, but there are many ways of writing and this is a perennial and interesting problem for writers. I tend to forget the physical descriptions as I draft, then add in a dab here or there as the characters grow in my imagination. It is often only at the third draft that I manage to put in physical descriptions (usually because someone has asked for them). I agree, if you stick up a magazine photo of each person as they appear, the shape of the story gets dull by repetition. I think maybe I err too far in the other direction.

      • I stream physical descriptions with descriptions of action and setting–trying as much as possible to do double or even triple duty in one sentence. I never stop the narrative to linger on a character’s clothes, body, etc. It’s like ramming an express train into a wall. 🙂

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