I’ve recently begun reading Bleak House, a Charles Dickens novel.  While I almost always enjoy Dickens novels, with the partial exception of A Tale of Two Cities, the funny thing is that I don’t really read his books for the stories.  Not that the stories are bad, but they really tend not to be my kind of stories.  With the exception of A Christmas Carol, Dickens novels tend to be too much fiction and not enough speculation for my taste.  No, I read Dickens novels for the descriptions.  Yes, I know that by modern standards his writing is considered florid and excessive, and that people assert he only wrote the way he did because he was paid by the word, but the fact of the matter is that I deeply enjoy his writing.

Part of it is his third person omniscient perspective, giving us a very distinctive narrator voice that is separate from the story.  This is a technique that is almost never utilized anymore, which I think is something of a shame, because when well-executed by a master of the craft (like Dickens) it can make the most banal scenes seem as vivid as an animated rainbow.  Mostly, though, it is his descriptions that keep me reading.  In his distinctive, wry, somewhat sarcastic narrator voice, he can convey vast amounts of world-building by his choice of adjectives, idioms, and allusions.

It’s a little ironic, then, that my wife and I continuously debate certain descriptive choices that I tend to make in my own writing.  While I describe scenes and set pieces in a way that I’ve been told is deeply immersive, I give very minimal physical character description, especially of my main characters.  This is not an oversight on my part, but a deliberate choice I make based on how I read stories, and aside from my difficulties with endings it might also be the single thing that my wife most dislikes about my writing in its present state.

Traditionally, describing your main characters is one of the first things that you’re “supposed” to do as an author.  This imperative is so strong that it has given rise to all kinds of clichés as authors attempt to find ways to convey this information in the in-vogue third person limited or first person perspectives in a convincing way, like the cliché of having your character examine him or herself in the mirror.  I’m sorry, but when was the last time you in real life looked in the mirror on some random morning and said “hm, I have raven-black locks, am about six feet tall, with a chiseled jawline, high cheekbones, and fingers like the tentacles of a squid?”

There are certainly ways to describe your main characters’ physical traits well, integrating them into the storytelling and making them as relevant as possible to the rest of the description and the events of your first few scenes.  My problem with all of these techniques is that when I’m reading, I pay approximately zero attention to what the main characters are supposed to look like.  Instead, I’ll essentially insert myself for the characters, to the point that, when I was younger, I used to get confused how a nine year old could be allowed to drive around town, until I remembered that the character was not actually my age (I think I’ve shared that anecdote on the site before).  With this in mind, I make a deliberate choice in my own writing to only provide such physical descriptions of the characters as are relevant to the story, and I leave everything else to the reader’s imagination.

Description by omission can be a powerful tool, and something that is strongly related to the oft-repeated axiom “show, don’t tell.”  By only elucidating a character’s appearance through its relevancy to story action, I am able to in effect show their physical traits without telling the reader about them.  If a particularly distinctive trait is going to become relevant later on, I will try to work it into the story ahead of time, but I prefer to spend far more time characterizing via voice, action, and thought than by physique.  In some cases, I don’t even know what my characters look like.  When I was recently asked to describe how I visualize Doil, I realized that I didn’t have a good answer.  I know that he’s shorter than Kiluron, not very muscular, with a slight squint, but that’s about it.  I couldn’t tell you in absolute terms how tall he is, or what color hair he has, or how long that hair is, or whether he has hairy legs or not.  Those sorts of things just haven’t been important to the story, so I never bothered to define them (which I realize is a little ironic, considering that I once wrote out a veritable encyclopedia of unique flora and fauna for a world for which I did not yet have a single story to tell).

This might just be one of those things that is a matter of personal taste.  I’m willing to admit that I should probably give a little more description of my characters, but I do maintain that this was a deliberate choice, and that being spare in such physical descriptions can be good for a reader’s relationship with a story.  No style of writing will ever appeal to everyone – just think of all of the people who are groaning at the fact that I said I enjoy Dickens’ excessively purple prose – so sometimes these are simply decisions that we as authors must make.  However, I’d be very interested to know what you think of physical character descriptions in stories, and also, come to think of it, what you think Kiluron and Doil look like.  Let me know if the comments below.

One thought on “Description Omission

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