I stumbled upon a conversation between some writers the other day, where they were discussing whether or not to describe the physical appearance of their main character. The consensus seemed to be not to give any physical details, as mystery made the reader use their imagination; lack of physicality produced an Everyman character that all readers could superimpose themselves upon; and who wants to read long boring descriptions of height and hair color anyway?
As I disagree, both as a reader and a writer, I decided to write a list of reasons why you should describe your main character.
1. I am not your main character.
I am not sure about your experience, but I’ve never come across a character in a book that looks like me, has had my life experiences or shared my beliefs. I’m quite happy about this, because I don’t want to read about me. I am with me every moment of the day. I read to learn about others, and to step into their shoes for a while. Experiencing life through the lens of another person is one of the reasons I love books. If you imagine your main character is a little like you, I will most likely read your main character as a little like you too. I’m not you, so I’m not going to think your main character is like me because you think it’s like you. Embrace the power to live vicariously that literature gives us. Describe your characters.
2. Lists are for laundry.
You don’t have to describe your character the same way a suspect is listed in a police All Points Bulletin, neither do they have to stand in front of a mirror to know what they look like. Fill your story with snippets of information that allow the reader to build a portrait of your character. Perhaps your MC is short and has to reach for things. Maybe another character comments that they don’t like brunettes or people who have tattoos. Think about how people in real life are treated because of how they look, and describe your character’s appearance through how they behave and are received by others.
3. Don’t keep us in suspense.
I recently read a book where the name of the main character, and their sex, was kept secret from the reader. I noticed it immediately, and kept looking for clues, thinking that the fact this information was withheld would have significant releavance to the story. It didn’t; turned out to be a writing experiment, and made the book very difficult to describe to others. Remember, what you omit from your story is as important as what you include.
4. Let your imagination do the work.
I’ve news for you, you’re writing a book. The reader has to imagine everything. Whether I tell you Bob looks like a pink turnip with a green nylon wing and eyes on stalks, or provide Bob with no description at all, the reader still has to put the work in to imagine the character. The only person who isn’t using their imagination when they refuse to describe a character is the writer. Don’t be a lazy writer.
5. Be the king of your castle.
You are the writer, which means you are the god of your world. If you manage to convince someone to step inside your world for several hours, or however long it takes to read your book, they hand over the reins to the movie theatre in their mind to you, so why are you so eager to give up that control? This is your story. You call all the shots. Fully embrace the magic of being able to manipulate another’s thoughts for the duration of your novel. Don’t give away your power as the writer by delegating the descriptions to your readers. The better you do your job as the writer, the bigger the impact your work will have in your reader’s brain.
Tell me about your favourite book that flaunts the convention of description in the comments.