Physical Descriptions of Characters

Feedback from a reader/ critique can range from dispute over a plot point to nitpicking over a single word. One that I usually receive has to do with physical descriptions of characters, or at least in my case, the lack thereof.

Isn’t it called a short story for a reason?

When it comes to short stories, I know that I am going to be on a strict “word-diet” before I type the first word. Every keystroke carries a greater weight than in a novel. Therefore, if a character’s physical appearance has absolutely no bearing on the story or the theme, should I bother with it?

From another point of view, I’ve only mentioned a gun in one story, because it is the only story that has a shooting scene. Wouldn’t it have been ridiculous to put guns in the hands of every character in every scene in every short story when it will never be used?

Literally speaking, short stories should be tight, compact, and economical.

Are physical descriptions too formulaic?

Physical descriptions seem that way to me. At times, they are an almost obligatory boring formula. However, that doesn’t mean that I avoid them completely. After pondering this question and taking a very critical eye to my past and current writing projects, I stumbled onto an article in Writer’s Digest.

Within the article, one point brought out was an example of how not to describe a character, called an “All Points Bulletin.” Well, it would seem like my gut feelings were right about shunning the dreaded APB style of description. I don’t pretend to be an expert or writing guru. I merely document what I’m learning. However, I get especially excited when I read something by an expert and discover that my artistic instincts led me to do things correctly.

What about minor descriptions?

Now I am guilty as charged. Sometimes I do offer drips and drabs concerning description. But only just enough to let the reader fill in the rest or to make a character or story aspect stand out without drawing heavy attention to it. In this manner, a reader can take a few hints and finish off the character’s description.

For example, in the short A Purveyor of Odd Things, Detective Renner Branson’s complexion is described as ruddy. That minor piece of description signifies that his budding relationship with Hannah Dixon is inter-racial.

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In Martha’s Kitchen, I made a significant description of the diner, the clothing, and the hair styles of Martha and Jillian. Everything was 1960’s “retro” to demonstrate their desire to cling to the past. Here’s the fun part, I’d say about fifty percent of the readers have asked me why I portrayed them as African-American. To which my answer is “I didn’t…you did that.” My only goal was to firmly establish them as southerners through dialog.

In the latest release Night Flights, I shied away from description and naturally got chided about it by a two beta readers. However, instead of adding a physical description of Jane, I decided to describe the quality of her appearance.

From “Night Flights”: An older series of nude studies completed last spring filled the left side of the studio, depicting Jane as an alluring but gentle nymph, charged with high-powered sexual energy, her face radiating a unique virginal innocence.

I also gave a small tidbit about Peter having very long hair. Perhaps a reader will create a bohemian artistic lifestyle and looks.

From “Night Flights”: Peter rubbed his forehead, untied his pony tail, and ran his fingers through his hair before releasing an exasperated breath.

In a forthcoming collection of six shorts called “Pressure Points,” I included a very detailed description of the main character in the story “An Internet Troll.” I’m still editing, therefore the following excerpt may change a bit before the release.

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From “An Internet Troll”: Her rotund body waddled as she walked. A round face and upturned nose tip gave her face a porcine quality. Thin legs projected a body image like two toothpicks supporting a misshapen meatball. Dirty clothes and greasy matted hair completed a distasteful compilation of unattractiveness coupled with unkempt hygiene.

In Conclusion

For me, character descriptions have always been something of a sticky point in my short stories. In my novel I do go through a battery of descriptions, both physical and mental. Although they are presented here and there to slowly build characters up.

How deep do your descriptions go? Are you going back to look over a few things now? Was this somewhat helpful?

6 thoughts on “Physical Descriptions of Characters

  1. I’m guilty of lack of description on occasion too, even in novels. If there is no purpose–as you have stated–to give a description, I don’t mention it.

    When I began writing, I believed the “All Points Bulletin” description was necessary. I noted their weight and height too. I was still a teen and using bookism at that time. Now, by the end of the story, readers will probably know the character’s hair colour and length, their eye colour and their deformities. Or they may not. These have to be seen and noted by another character, so if the other character doesn’t take note, neither does the writer.

    I prefer the reader to create the image in their mind; they can probably do it better than I can to fit their idea of what they are reading.

    Personally, I dislike reading a book, forming that personal image and then later seeing an actual picture of what the author envisioned. It’s usually far from what I imagined.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I struggle with physical descriptions even in my longer works. I find it hard to strike the perfect balance between letting the reader know what a character looks like, while at the same time allowing them to make their own projections and use of imagination.

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