One of the most remarkable things about reading novels and stories from the 1800s is the languid and comprehensive way writers describe characters. Writers like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne spend a great deal of energy on precise and evocative detail about even minor characters (and not just because they were often paid by the word).
Good physical description has become a bit of a lost and under-appreciated art, and far too many writers orient too heavily around dialogue at the expense of creating more vivid imagery for their readers. I strongly advocate paying close attention to your first impressions and think about how you can channel at least a bit of your inner Herman Melville as you introduce new characters.
Still, tastes and reader expectations have changed, there’s now a premium on tight storytelling, and spending an entire page describing a character could leave your reader dozing. Accordingly, I hear from so many writers who eschew physical description because they’re worried about boring their readers.
In order to have the best of both worlds, here’s a tip: think about capturing a character’s overall presence more than trying to list comprehensive details.
A great way to do this is via a metonym, essentially one detail that can stand in for the whole.
For instance, in the opening chapter of my most recent novel, I describe a minor character like this: “Mary was wearing a deep purple jumpsuit that seemed a bit festive for a funeral.”
I haven’t told you anything about what Mary looks like, but chances are you have an image of your head. You can grasp the overall vibe of this character from that one detail alone, which, for the purposes of this character and scene, is really all that’s required.
There are writers who are wonderful at crafting positively scintillating and comprehensive physical description, but it’s not always necessary. You can give the reader a more gentle nudge in the right direction by choosing a judicious detail or two that helps them conjure the scene in their heads without bogging down the action.
Don’t psych yourself out thinking physical description means tons of painstaking detail. A little can go a long way.
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Art: Detail from a self-portrait by Rembrandt