How often in novels have you read descriptions like the following?
(1) Nancy hung her jacket and hat in the closet across from the front door, and placed her black, knitted gloves inside the pocket.
She sat on the plastic-fitted sofa—a picture of Jesus centered on the egg-white wall behind. An array of family photos was on the brass table at the side. A crafted white mermaid with silver scales that she had made during her youth in an art class decorated the tawny coffee table.
(2) Dressed in a tailored military uniform, the tall dark man squeezed his coveted physique in-between and turned his rhythm towards Briana. His dark-brown satin eyes were fixated on an hourglass figure that wore a lavender fit-and-flare dress with filigree swirl earrings and black pumps.
Or maybe the description goes into considerably more depth:
(3) Briana parted her jacket so the club’s bouncer could fully scan her ample figure underneath it, clad in the navy-blue satin dress that highlighted her voluptuous breasts that she’d made sure properly stood out. He nodded and unhooked the red velvet rope. “Enjoy,” he said as he opened the gold-handled black door.
She stepped onto a white-pebbled, mosaic marble floor lighted by the high-ceilinged crystal chandelier. A Victorian-style couch and caprice chairs furnished the entrance hall of the open space. Brawny bouncers in black suits and neckties stood along the walls like statues. The hostesses wore black, fitted dresses and were swiftly moving up and down the marble stairs.
Behind the green jade granite coat-check counter stood a red-haired woman. Her plum lipstick and hooded brown eyes were distinctive. “Would you like to check your coats?”
Briana handed the woman her jacket and scarf. The thin, jovial woman issued each a ticket and stamped the back of her hand.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with such descriptions, as I’ve pointed out in recent posts, descriptions slow or stop the forward momentum of the narrative.
I’m not saying we don’t need descriptions because we do need them to orient readers in the story, and sometimes we deliberately want to slow the narrative to increase dramatic tension. Properly positioned description or exposition can achieve this.
As I’ve mentioned regarding dialogue (that good dialogue should characterize the speaker, advance the plot, or do both), descriptions should serve similarly. They should tell us something useful and important to the story.
The trap too many writers who write passages like examples (1)–(3) fall into is creating what we might call a SHOPPING LIST DESCRIPTION. By this we mean the writer makes a list (real or imagined) of physical traits of the character and proceeds to use that list to write out the description of the character—from every facial feature to every article of clothing worn.
When the character is truly unusual or striking, this might not be so bad, but we have to be careful not to get carried away. I do want to point out that for the most part the previous description are not purple prose, which is defined as using over-the-top or unusual words, in addition to excessive description.
Therefore, my RULE NUMBER ONE is to avoid a shopping-list description.
My RULE NUMBER TWO is to be selective with descriptive details. Don’t overload a description. Try to pick out three or four KEY details to paint the character or setting.
Here’s an exercise to try. Park yourself somewhere you can observe people. Zero in on one person and take a quick mental snapshot, then look away. Jot down three or four things that initially struck you about that person. You can include age and gender.
You can play this game sitting on the porch of your home. Look around at houses in the neighborhood, at people walking by, at vehicles driving by. Did you just see a red sports car whose muffler was too loud?
What I’m trying to do here is teach you to pick out the IMPORTANT things. In example (3), if you were Briana, would you notice (or care about) all those details of the coat-check woman?
Now, maybe the previous paragraph of the inside of the club might draw your attention more, but the problem in that paragraph is that it’s overloaded. The description tells us nothing about Briana herself or WHY she notices these things.
That’s another important aspect to description, and here’s an additional exercise you can try. Go park yourself somewhere with two or three friends (from different backgrounds or interests), all observing the same things. Perhaps you can point out some person and all three of you can jot down three things you notice. Compare your notes. Did you all notice the same aspects of that person? Chances are each person notices at least some different things.
What’s even more important in fiction is that what we notice is often related to our interests and personalities. A clothing designer will notice different things than will a detective or a factory worker. A factory worker seeing a beautiful woman is probably going to focus more on the overall appearance, while a clothing designer will focus on what the person is wearing, and the detective might pay more attention to the person’s bearing and movements.
One way you create three-dimensional characters is by having them perceive the world differently. If all of your characters see things the same way, then you are failing at your job as a writer because you’re giving all of your characters the same perceptions that you yourself have.
Each of your characters should see things differently according to their personalities, prejudices, and biases. A homeless person won’t see another homeless person the same way that a well-off person will. Your descriptions therefore need to reflect the perceptions of the characters not of you as the author.
Let’s look at some examples to illustrate these points.
(4) Eli exited the classroom building after teaching his night class. The air was muggy, and the sidewalks were still wet from the brief shower earlier in the evening. Ahead of him, a young woman exited another building, walking under infrequent overhead lights toward the parking lot. With his nightsight, he could make out the folded umbrella on top of the denim jacket and books under her arm. Given the recent attacks on women at night on the campus, he watched to make sure she made it safely to her vehicle.
[COMMENT] It’s dark, and few details are apparent other than the general setting. The observer, a teacher and someone with keen night vision, is concerned for the woman. It makes sense what he sees her carrying. Any details beyond this are not important. Even though he could make out the details of her general apparel, that’s not his focus. Now compare this with the next excerpt…
(5) Eli came up beside Ling Lu on the Detroit Riverwalk, looking out across the black nighttime water. With the moon and a few distant streetlights the only illumination, his nightsight easily discerned the details of her Asian beauty and the warmth of her brown eyes. Her modern suit had classic Oriental red and black colors. She didn’t wear this one often. In it her slender body appeared delicate. Ling was anything but.
[COMMENT] Again it’s nighttime, it’s the same character observing, and the lighting is similar, but his focus is different. He knows this woman, unlike the one in the previous scene, and he sees her based on his knowledge of her. Same character, different circumstances, and different concerns. And a different type of description.
Now let’s look at one final example. The characters are completely different, as are the circumstances. This is a modified excerpt from More Than Magick that shows one way to integrate character descriptions without unduly interrupting the story. There’s still a lot of description here, and some could probably be cut or spread out more, but you get the idea. The point is that the descriptions become part of the natural flow of the story and have actions and dialogue intermixed.
(6) I looked up at the knock on the open door of my dorm room where I was putting the last items into my suitcase to leave campus, having graduated. The man stepped forward and proffered his hand over the bed. “I’m Jake.”
I shrugged and reluctantly shook his hand, although I wasn’t sure why, he being a complete stranger. He was about six feet tall and well acquainted with the gym. Short, kinky, black hair came to a point on his forehead, and inch-long sideburns framed a square jaw with a shaved-last-night stubble. I guessed him late twenties. He didn’t seem threatening.
“Ready for the interview?” he asked.
“What interview?… Wait, is this about the job ad on the dorm bulletin board?
“But that was just a couple of hours ago, and I didn’t leave a message saying I was interested.”
“Ah, the beauty of caller ID. Are you interested in the job or not?”
“I’m not exactly dressed for an interview.”
“Neither am I.” His barely ironed, button-down white shirt, jeans, and deck shoes were still better than my denim shorts and tan, pocket T-shirt. And he was wearing a nouveau-formal black leather tie.
“I have a flight at twelve forty-five,” I said.
“We’ll be done long before that.”
This had to be a joke, but since I’d finished packing and had nothing better to do for the moment, it might prove amusing to hear what he had to say. I offered him my chair and sat on the bed. “Sorry, my résumés are packed away.”
“My ad said none required.” He pointed to my suitcase. “I appreciate my employees being ready to go on a moment’s notice.” He pulled a tattered spiral notebook from his shirt pocket and flipped it open. He read, “Name: Jefferson Scott Madison.”
“Scott. I don’t use my first name.”
But he continued. “Place of residence: Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Age: Twenty-two. Height: Six-four. Weight: One-ninety. Major: Biology, marine concentration. Minors: Art and Literature. Marital status: …Single.” He raised his head. “Any kids?”
“You said I was single.”
His eyes drilled into mine. “Marriage is not a prerequisite to procreation, as I’m sure your biology classes adequately taught you.” He grinned, displaying perfect white teeth.
The key takeaway from these examples is that description should feel like a natural part of the story, not something the author needed to insert to get it out of the way so the story could move on.
Here are some links to a series of articles on character descriptions that include some tips and further ideas.