Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Like a Young Burt Reynolds: Problems with Character Description

Jodie Renner had a good post on description at Crime Fiction Collective recently. It got me thinking about something that bothers me: too much character description. Jodie's post talked about how too much character description can slow the story, especially when given in bulk for minor characters. 

If the characters aren't important, something like "Juan Lopez, the youngest of the group" is enough to suggest his rough appearance. By giving more details, as a reader I feel like I'm supposed to pay attention. It pushes me out of the scene, and I might pause to study who had what color eyes/hair etc., assuming I'll want to know what they look like later. If they never appear again, or aren't important, you've wasted my time.

But there's another problem with detailed character descriptions. You're trusting your reader to have the same reaction you do, and that might not happen. This is especially dangerous if the character is supposed to be romantically appealing. I've read several romanctic heroes with a cleft chin, which is not something I find particularly attractive. Mention it once, and I can skim over it, but if a character trait is reiterated every time the character appears, it's hard to ignore.

Another problem is describing someone as looking like a celebrity. I've heard that technique described as lazy, but what I think is worse, it could have the opposite effect you intended. I recently read a book which was overall very good, but the romantic hero was described multiple times as looking like "a young Burt Reynolds." Since I don't find Burt Reynolds attractive, this came across as a negative thing. Plus, I only knew what Reynolds looked like in middle age.

You also risk the celebrity technique backfiring if the reader has no idea what that person looks like. I don't watch TV or see a lot of movies, and I don't follow celebrity gossip. There are names that I vaguely know as being popular, but I couldn't tell you what they look like. And as the years pass, some of those names will fade from popular consciousness – or worse, become associated with something negative. Imagine reading a book with a main character who has the sweet, girl next-door wholesomeness of Britney Spears. Might come across as a little dated now, huh?

For me, a brief character description works best. Let me fill in the rest with my imagination. 

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