Writing fictional characters with little or no physical description

One thing I dislike about fiction writing is in which authors depict fiction characters being handsome or beautiful simply because it’s what writers tend to do and it makes characters appealing to readers.

In the fiction that I’m writing at the moment, I am considering creating the characters with little or no physical description other than name, nationality, race, occupation, age and gender. This would also allow the reader to fill in their own mental idea of what the character looks like - so, for instance, a male Japanese aircraft pilot who is 30-35 years old, but no further description of what he looks like - i.e., no “buzz cut hair,” no “six feet tall,” no “tattooed forearms” or “square chin,” etc. Would this sort of approach be an improvement, or would it detract from the story?

Sometimes I like a bit of physical description, but I do tend to roll my eyes whenever the author gives us a whole paragraph of descriptors (“He was in his early thirties, starting to gain a small paunch, but still showing some of the muscle he had worked so hard to hone in his twenties. His buzz-cut hair, square jaw and heavily tattooed forearms would’ve made him intimidating on their own, but those paled in comparison to his penetrating gaze”, etc.)

The worst for me, though, is when physical details show up later in the story, after the character has been introduced and I’ve already formed a mental image of what they look like, only to find out that 200 pages later, I’m wrong. There’s also the fun case where the character is clearly on the cover but described entirely differently in the book itself.

So, in the end, unless you’re worried about your script suddenly getting turned into a TV show or movie and your characters being cast without your say-so, entirely wrong, I’d say go for it with the minimal descriptions.

My advice would be to stick with the conventions of the day…as practiced by writers you personally admire the most.

If you’re a fan of George R.R. Martin…go with his style of description. If you’re more of a Stephen King fan…follow him.

It’s a truism in writing that characters should be distinguishable. Physical description is one way of doing this. Another is speech style. A character might be verbose, or aggressive, or say, “Eh, what?” a lot. Another way is by role. The private detective asks a lot of questions and says, “It didn’t add up” every so often.

This is sometimes called the “funny hat” approach to characterization. Every character should have something that the reader can use as a short-cut. “The fat guy.” “The scaredy-cat.” “The professor.” “The jealous wife.”

Sure, you shouldn’t go on at absurd length about every detail. But the reader does expect a quick “charcoal sketch” of the characters’ appearances.

Again, find a writer you like a lot, and “apprentice” yourself to their style.

I think some description is helpful, but only inasmuch as it relates to the story. Do I need to know that the protagonist has “emerald green eyes”? Rarely, and btw those are so common in fantasy settings it shouldn’t even be remarkable. Even the horses have “emerald green eyes”, it seems some times. Size or racial features can be relevant or not depending on what happens, social settings, etc.

I’ve never gotten paid for fiction, but my best description ever didn’t mention a single physical feature; the closest it came to a physical description was that she was a she, that she was attractive, and that her clothing was strategically slashed. I laughed my ass off when the guys finally caught up on that: each of them had painted that particular woman according to his own taste.

Try reading some Elmore Leonard, he’s great at this: he’ll give a rough physical description - tall, lean, brown-haired - but leaves you to fill in the details. Interestingly, he’ll often spend more time describing what someone is wearing, which is a neat way of characterising without leading the reader. Too often describing a character’s appearance it’s an author’s lazy way of telling you what you should think - he had a firm pugnacious chin and a cruel slash of a mouth - without going to the effort of showing it; P. D. James was terrible for over-using this.

A good way to describe a character is through the eyes of other characters - how *they *describe him or her, or even just how they act in his or her presence. That way, appearance isn’t just superfluous, but has a direct impact on the story and on character interactions.

James is the soul of brevity describing her characters, when you consider she often spends an entire chapter describing a room.

If you’re going to end up with a mental image of the character, you may as well give the readers a hint of it when the character is introduced. There’s a certain beloved children’s book where the characters’ complexions are mentioned at the very end, and the original illustrations don’t match, presumably because the illustrator started at the beginning…

But if you can stick with the “no physical description,” that has its own value. Think of the terseness of Scripture and its description of figures. Or Tolkien’s argument in Tree and Leaf about using simple words and letting the reader fill in details from their own experiences.

I have little interest in describing characters; it’s usually pretty perfunctory for me.

It shouldn’t be a drawback. One writing teacher of mine said it’s usually unnecessary to describe a character (especially the main character) as handsome/beautiful, because the reader identifies with the character and thus thinks he or she is good looking.

When I sold my novel, the editor asked for the description of the main character for the book cover. It was then that I realized I had never described her. (I added a description in the editing process, matching what I made up to tell the artist. And, of course, the artist’s rendition didn’t match my description, anyway.)

So don’t worry about it. If you want to leave out description, leave it out.

This guy probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about but check out tips 8 and 9.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers

Robert Heinlein generally did not give much description of his characters.

In Starship Troopers, you are about three quarters of the way through the book before you learn that the protagonist is Filipino. Several characters are discussing languages, and he mentions that his parents spoke Tagalog at home. They live in a non-racist society, so the character’s race is never relevant before or after that scene, so it never needs to be mentioned before or after that scene.

He would occasionally mention hair color. (In The Rolling Stones, the close-knit Stone family inherited Grandma Hazel’s fiery red hair. Heinlein had a thing for red-headed women.) But other than that, Heinlein usually left things to the reader’s imagination.

In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammet describes Sam Spade as looking “like a blonde-haired Satan”. However, I generally prefer to visualize him looking like Humphrey Bogart.

If curly hair or straight hair, or a large nose or a small nose, is important to the plot, then mention it when the character is introduced. But most likely, the character’s actions are going to be more important than the character’s looks.

Jane Austen said very little about how her characters looked or dressed. I don’t think she ever said what color hair any of her heroines had, and while she described some as having dark eyes or light eyes I believe the only one whose actual eye color was specified was Emma Woodhouse.

Some supporting characters are described in a bit more detail, but only if it’s significant to how others see them. For instance, there’s this passage from Mansfield Park:

In Hammet’s Continental Op stories he doesn’t describe the op (the op describes himself only as ugly and heavy); you don’t even learn his name. It read it when I was young; it was the first time I had encountered that trope and I loved it.

On the writers’ board I frequent, you’ll get called out for (1) describing characters using only hair and eye color, or (2) having your viewpoint character look in a mirror so you have an opportunity to describe him or her.

Other than that, it’s all about the genre and audience. GRRM writes minimal character descriptions (in fact he falls into the “hair and eye color” trap), and I never want more. Diana Gabaldon writes so much character description so often that you can see the faces exactly. They both suit their readers’ tastes. They both know their markets.

What it all comes down to is, is it interesting? You can do anything if it’s interesting.

And lots of people don’t like Elmore Leonard, so take his advice with a grain of salt.

I doubt very much that I had the same writing teacher as RealityChuck (and unlike Chuck, I’m not a professional author), but the writing teacher that I did have once memorably said, “Unless it’s somehow important to the plot, what fictional characters look like is completely unimportant.” While I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, I am generally pretty sparing when I describe characters. And when I’m reading, if I encounter long physical descriptions of the characters, I tend to skip them.

As I’ve said in other threads, that occasionally causes me some problems. Sometimes authors will mix things up, and identify characters by some physical characteristic, rather than their name. E.g., “said the blonde” or “the taller man grinned.” Those things always confuse me, because I never bother to memorize which woman is blonde or which man is taller. :slight_smile:

What color is Aragorn’s hair? How about Hamlet’s? Scout Finch’s? Heck, we don’t even find out that Scout is a girl until a chapter or so in. And yet, that lack of detailed appearances didn’t stop any of those books from being classics.

What did Mrs. Hudson look like?

I’m pretty sure that gets put to rest in his very first scene. Dark brown or black, well salted.

No, I can’t be bothered to look it up, but my brain is telling me it’s so.

Try the Fletch novels. They’re heavy on dialogue, light on description. I’m sure Gregory McDonald describes him at some point, but it’s quick and easy, and we’re off to more action or dialogue. IIRC correctly, the first book opens with nothing but dialogue, in a scene where someone hires Fletch to kill him.

When I used to write short stories I never gave physical descriptions rather focus completely on persona (attitude, behavior, mannerism’s, habits, clothing style…etc? which tends to tell a lot on it’s own anyway but the reader decides how that will effect their image of them physically. Also readers will tend to stereotype if you’re descriptive physically so I always let the details of their persona provide readers with their own image.

I have also written from a first person perspective where any perception or description of anything was through the persona of that character’s mind. So often when writing like that I gave descriptions of what this character notices about people and how he/she judges them so I try to link how this first person character’s personality would perceive those around him/her. So if he/she is a germaphobe, then I focus on them noticing people sneezing, touching stuff…etc because it becomes a primary observation to that character.