For Sunday, December 20, 2015:
“I don’t think it is worth explaining how a character’s nose or chin looks. It is my feeling that readers will prefer to construct, little by little, their own character — the author will do well to entrust the reader with this part of the work.”
Jose Saramago, The Paris Review (Winter 1998)
Oh, how glad I was to come across this earlier today! One of the things I was worried about in the draft of the novel I finished a few days ago was that I didn’t have enough physical descriptions of the characters. At the same time, I have read novels and stories that feel as though the physicality of the characters is more important than their stories, their lives, what they’re going through.
Some descriptors are helpful, perhaps even necessary, but I tend to agree with Saramago. I prefer to drop them into the narrative like an observer sees that that fellow’s long legs might trip someone now that he’s stretched them out. Okay, so that means he’s likely tall. Or she has freckles that come out in the sun, so maybe her skin is fair and she and a friend have been talking together for a while. Or that little hint of fuchsia that’s just visible in a teenager’s hair might indicate a wallflower who wants to break out of her shell.
Or the cushions on a new couch sink down when a characters sits, and then he has trouble standing up. That might mean he’s either a bit portly, or has short legs, or both – or maybe there’s a disability he lives with. In this case, some description can help and should be included, but I don’t think the reader must know what color his hair is, if he has any, or what color his eyes are. Not now anyway. When it’s time, reveal those descriptors through other characters, either in dialogue with others or internal dialogue.
Yes, some descriptions yield visual clues to characters’ personalities — does how she dress reveal her Bohemian lifestyle, for instance? In my opinion, though – as a reader, a writer, and an editor – the trick is to avoid whole paragraphs or blocs of sentences at a time.
I trust readers to create their own descriptions. That, in turn, will help them to feel the world they’re reading about is, for a little while at least, real.