Creatively Thinking: Describing a character’s appearance is a common conundrum of fiction writing

I always told myself stories in my head when I was growing up so when I decided last year to write fiction, I was sure it would be an easy task for me.

Well, slow your roll, Lisa (as an old boss of mine used to say). Writing fiction is not as easy as you think. In fact, writing fiction is more like yanking all the hairs of my head out one by one, or sentence by sentence, some days. It’s often tedious and a breeding ground of discontent for over thinkers like me. While many writers just toss what they think onto the page and keep going, I toss it there and then I look at it and agonize over the fact I don’t know a lot of big words, I’m not as smart as other people and I don’t have as much life experience as some.

I’m also discovering I’m horrible at descriptions. Especially when it comes to the appearance of a person. I’m reading a book by Becky Wade and she’s a master at it. Take for example, this description of one of her main characters in Sweet on You: “His pale skin struck a distinct contrast with his hair, which verged on black. His jaw, cheekbones, and nose were all sharply defined. Straight eyebrows. Thick eyelashes. Zander had a romantic, slightly heartbreaking, usually serious face. He could pass as either a nineteeth-century poet or one of those harshly handsome vampires from Twilight.”

You can clearly picture him, right? Right! (Mention of Twilight aside, that was a good description.) When I try to describe a character, I draw a blank. I simply describe their hair and eye color and maybe their build. I don’t draw comparisons to who they look like to others or how a facial feature could be compared to a piece of food or a particular flower.

In some ways I prefer vague character descriptions because then I, as the reader, can make up own mind about what the character looks like. Jan Karon, author of The Mitford series, says she purposely doesn’t describe her characters’ appearances because she likes her readers to use their own imagination and conjure up their own physical image of each character. She draws her approach to character descriptions on the days of old radio shows when she listened and created an image of the show characters in her mind.

I’m working on improving my character and scene descriptions in my next book but I don’t want to go too overboard. We were discussing the subject of overly detailed descriptions in books in an online writing forum I am a part of and several writers and readers agreed that if the descriptions become too detailed they skip right over those paragraphs. One person said they found long descriptions boring.

So what is a writer to do? I suppose a writer has to find a happy medium and offer just enough description of a character or place to flush them out but not so much as to bore the reader. So, yeah, that should be easy to do. Right?

As my mom would say, with her hand pressed firmly against her forehead, “Lord, give me strength!”

8 thoughts on “Creatively Thinking: Describing a character’s appearance is a common conundrum of fiction writing

  1. Thanks for posting this! I personally prefer a little description when I meet the characters for the first time. For me, I like to include one detail, either about their hair color or their clothes. It seems to work pretty well. 🙂

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