In a sense, there is a ‘camera’ in your story which sets the pace of how the scene unfolds. Description immediately slows down the pace, and too much description makes it almost slow motion. It’s not important to record every detail in order for the readers to get a clear image of the character in their head. Let them imagine whom they will—just as long as the character’s personality doesn’t change. The personality is what shines through and what should remain consistent regardless of how others imagine their appearance.
Once I let someone read a chapter of a story of mine, and she gave me this feedback:
Character development – I very much enjoyed how you are developing your characters. Nothing annoys me more when a writer says here is my character, this is what they look like, this is their temperament within the first couple of paragraphs without giving their character a chance to develop and grow. I dislike this “in your face” approach and prefer to learn about the character as the book develops, so I like your approach to your characters.
Then she sent me a sample of her story. What amazed me was how this writer was acutely aware of terrible introductions of characters yet could not write without falling into the same problem. After exchanging a few emails, I came to learn that she knew she had been writing the kind of writing she didn’t like to read, but she didn’t know what else to do. So I gave her some advice.
The characters’ looks are not important. It is their personality and behavior that are fundamental to the story. Once I wrote an entire book, and I imagined the actors who would play the characters if it became a movie. However, I didn’t try to describe the actors’ looks. I just went along with the story, developing the character as I went. The most remarkable feedback I got from a reader was, “Have you ever watched the TV series Merlin? Your character reminds me of Morgana.” I had to laugh because that was exactly whom I imagined when I wrote that character though there were some differences.
The problem is that the brain is much quicker than the eye, but when reading our eyes must first read the words in order for our brains to comprehend them. If the pace has slowed down, then our brain doesn’t see the story unfold as quickly. The only way to prevent this is to use motion description, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, here: Movement in Description.
This is an example of what dragged-out description feels like to a reader. Once I was in the kitchen baking when my mom came in and started reading to me a section out of a Sherlock Holmes story. In it, Sherlock and Watson walk down a corridor at a brisk pace, and suddenly they turn a corner, and someone is standing in the middle of the hall waiting for them. The whole story stops to describe the character entirely! To me, I imagined it as a movie. They’re walking down a hallway at a swift pace, turn the corner, and then S-L-O-W motion as they take in the sight of this new character from head to toe. It was like a L’Oreal commercial where the women have their hair flying in the wind in slow motion…except, this new character was a guy—a tough, hardened man. As you can imagine, because the pace slowed down to take the time to describe him, my mental image of him was completely ruined. I had to laugh because I couldn’t get the Sherlock Holmes L’Oreal commercial I envisioned out of my head. This is one example of how films and television have influenced our imagination.
There are a lot of Sherlock films and TV shows, and we know Sherlock doesn’t take THAT much time to observe a character. He’s very quick about it. Just as Sherlock used deductive reasoning, we must use deductive writing in our stories when introducing characters and setting. Always keep the story moving.
“So if we’re not supposed to give a described snapshot of our character upon introduction, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to show our characters?” Imagine your character and the first thing you’d notice about them in person. Is this character tall? Perhaps he has striking eye color you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the character’s look, but rather the aura he presents is regal and noble or flamboyant and careless. Whichever way he is will be evident in the way he carries himself, and this has a lot to do with body language and can be shown over a course of time instead of a pause in the story to describe the character. Here are examples of both styles of writing:
Example 1: Standing at 6’2, Skelton wore a black trench coat, black clothes, and black boots. His hair was a shocking blonde, and his eyes were stunning blue while he smiled with mischief. High cheek bones, sharp nose, and square jaw made him all the more striking to look at, but there was something fun and roguish about him.
Example 2: Skelton flung the doors open and smirked when everyone flinched at the sound of the door slamming against the wall, but he sauntered in with confidence. “Well, well, well! Looks like you’re having a party! And no one thought to invite me?” He pressed a hand to his chest as he pursed his lips into a pout then clicked his tongue and wagged his head–dropping his hand and the pout as he smirked again. “Not to worry! I’ll just make myself at home!” Marching around the length of the table, he came to the head of it and plopped himself down in the chair then kicked his boots up onto the table as he leaned back in the chair and intertwined his hands over his chest. “So, peoples, where are we? What’s on the agenda?” Everyone glared at him.
In one version, we are merely told what he looks like and hinted at how he behaves. In the second version, we don’t need to be told anything. We get his personality right away. Yes, we don’t know the color of his hair or his eye color or the exact shape of his face, but is more important? Always keep in mind what is most important to your story.
“Are there ever any exceptions?” Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. It merely takes an exceptionally good writer to know when and how and why exactly to break the rules.