Character Descriptions That Matter

How much detail to give a character's description is often hotly debated, with two primary schools of thought:

1. Include as much detail as possible about each character in order to let the reader know what the character looks like and also to provide additional imagery. It's good to include all five senses in your descriptions.

2. Only include what is absolutely necessary in order to move the story forward. Assume readers will fill in other details with their own imaginations. Descriptions should be built into the story and not just a date dump - e.g., a whole narrative paragraph describing a character but with no context.

Bestselling author Barry Eisler is a great technical writer, but he sometimes uses a little more description than I like (completely a personal preference; to most people, his writing probably seems pretty streamlined). The following are some search results for the word 'hair' in his book Detachment in which that is definitely not the case:

From their size, close-cropped hair, and Oakley wraparound shades, favored these days by Special Forces and their private sector counterparts, I made the visitors as military, maybe serving, maybe ex.

Surgeons were able to save what was left of his ear. He grew his hair long to cover his deformity, and he never came near me again.

I examined his fingertips to ensure he hadn’t managed to scrape any skin or hair off me while he was struggling—I hadn’t felt anything, but adrenaline masks pain and it wasn’t impossible that he’d managed to scratch my scalp or pull some hair. I found nothing.

She’s safe. No one can track her.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead and ran his fingers back through his hair.
Dox had commented on it, too, on our drive west from Las Vegas. “That hombre could make Satan’s neck hairs stand on end,” was how he’d put it. 

However, note that every time Barry uses the word 'hair' he builds it into the rest of the content. Also note that his uses of 'hair' were almost always necessary for some element of the story, or they let him quickly describe a character based on a common trope so that he didn't need to go into greater detail. When he does use the word, and not to overuse, it tends to be at the center of the action, not just tacked onto a description.

This is just one example of an author who uses description well and practices #2 over #1. For Barry, it works because he knows how to use description well. It also works well for other bestselling authors. 

Avoid #1 at all costs.


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