I struggle with description. I’m not a visual person. In fact, sometimes I have to pull up a bunch of images or videos online to serve as a guide when trying to really evoke a person or place. So when I encounter description in a book, the question of “how much” description to use is one that I’m invested in.
Unfortunately, the standard answer of “just enough and no more” is….less than helpful.
Let’s start with Chris.
He’s 32 years old, 6’1, about 140 pounds, red hair, hazel eyes, pale, freckled, and thin. He’s wearing a medium-blue button-down shirt and light gray cotton slacks that fit him well. He has brown loafers on with no socks, a brown men’s dress belt, and a Smartwatch. He’s wearing no other jewelry or accessories.
That’s what we call the “police sketch” description of the person. It has the kind of detail that would let the cops put out a BOLO on a suspect and identify them clearly. It probably gives someone with a visual imagination a great picture of Chris.
There’s two problems with it. First, it does NOTHING for those of us without a visual imagination. I have no idea what 140 pounds looks like on a man. By the time I reach the end of the description, the earlier details are already sliding out of my head. Despite the excruciating detail, Chris is vague to me. I’ve got nothing.
The other problem is that it’s boring.
So how much of that description is really necessary? We all know that human minds fill in blanks. One of my many past careers was a post-bac research position in a psychology lab studying biases in eyewitness testimony. Turns out, eyewitness testimony is super unreliable. It more often reflects the witness’s expectations of what happened than what actually happened. Much of the detail comes from our own imagination instead of our eyes.
So if we just say Chris is a tall, thin redhead, what’s the picture of him in your mind? You’ll probably still picture a person. But is it the person the author had in mind?
Let’s re-frame it.
What is your description trying to accomplish? If it’s just to paint a visual picture, it’s not doing enough work for the real-estate it takes up in your story. Instead, think about how much else you could do with the same words.
- Characterization of the person or place described
- Deep POV characterization of the observer
- Promises to the reader
None of these should take the place of creating an image of the person or place, but they could be served equally.
What if I described Chris like this:
He was a tall, leanly-muscled man with laughing green-brown eyes and a crisply tailored blue Oxford shirt. His hair shone the color of the sun and freckles were tossed across his creamy skin like constellations.
What does this description tell you that the police sketch version, in all its detail, does not?
- It tells us things about Chris, like he’s a happy, confident guy who takes pains with his appearance.
- It tells us things about the POV character, like they might be attracted to Chris.
- It promises the reader some kind of future romantic or platonic relationship arc between Chris and the POV character.
- It sets or adds to the tone of the book in the writing style and use of imagery.
I could pack the same amount of work into a negative portrayal:
He was a gaunt, gangly man. His pale, pinched face was mottled with freckles. Every strand of his wiry orange hair sat rigidly in place. His shirt collar stood at attention, as if the fabric didn’t dare show a wrinkle for fear of the man’s disapproval.
This also tells us things about Chris and how the POV character perceives him (controlling, austere, grim). It promises the reader some kind of enemy or antagonist relationship between the POV character and Chris. It sets or adds to the tone of the book with the writing style and use of imagery.
In both descriptions, we have a tall, thin, red-haired man who takes pains with his appearance. Choosing words with positive or negative emotional content to describe the same man makes for a very different description. If I don’t have a clear image of Chris, I at least have a very clear impression of him, from the POV character’s perspective.
When writing description of people or places, look for neutral description words. “Blue eyes” is neutral. It isn’t doing any additional work for you beyond telling us the color of someone’s eyes. Don’t go overboard with the thesaurus, but look for simple words that carry a little emotional weight to them.
“Icy” or “steel” blue implies a person is cold and heartless, intensely self-controlled, and determined.
“Watery” might give the impression of a person who is soft and emotional, uncertain, unconfident, or prone to tears.
“Ocean” may imply someone who is deep, philosophical, and meditative.
“Sky” could imply an open-hearted, confident dreamer.
Don’t waste flowery metaphors beyond a simple adjective, on secondary characters. You’re showing your POV character’s thoughts lingering on the person’s appearance, committing it to memory. That makes promises to the reader about that character’s significance in the POV character’s life.
What about all those other details, like his age, his shoes, his smartwatch? Once you’ve conveyed an impression of the character, only add details that are significant to the story. The sockless loafers and smartwatch could be part of the initial impression if the POV character thinks he’s a hipster and judges him for it. Is he wearing a wedding ring? That could be important for a romance, but doesn’t need to be part of the initial description. The POV character could do a subtle ring-check in their next action beat. The watch could be significant if it turns out he’s a time-traveler and it’s his communicator or device controller, so drop that gun on the mantel. First impressions don’t have to be a complete picture, though; they’re simply a sketch to be filled in as we go.