In the good old days, it used to be almost mandatory to describe your characters, down to the most minute detail. Not too many decades ago, it was common to see the old cliché of the character looking in the mirror (or seeing their reflection in a department store window) describing themselves through internal dialogue or through narrative. One way or the other, you had to describe each and every major character and most of the minor ones. Things have changed. No longer is it necessary to describe characters in detail. In fact, in many cases, agents and editors actually encourage authors to leave it up to the reader to draw their own picture.
Is there one correct way? Not really. There are, as usual, both extremes. Describe in detail and don’t describe at all. In certain instances, each method works. Which one is right for you? From the trends that I’ve seen, unless you are an established author, or write chick-lit or romance, the most common method to describe characters, especially for male-oriented stories or general appeal novels seems to be to drop an occasional hint and let the reader draw their own picture.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. A big nono was the character looking in the mirror (or seeing his or her reflection). That was the place to describe the character in detail, which became a list (which I’ve discussed earlier). I left nothing to the imagination. If you happen to describe a character with traits the reader doesn’t like, they may be biased against that character throughout the story, no matter how the character acts. The character may remind them of someone they do or don’t like. I say, don’t make it easy for them. Let them decide.
A second big nono was comparing a character to a celebrity. Never EVER describe a character as looking like “Danny Glover” or “Megan Fox” or “Katy Sagal” or “Brad Pitt.” By doing so, not only are you being lazy, but you are biasing your reader. What if your reader hates that actor? What if that actor does something extremely controversial in real life? Or, that actor plays a character so far from what your character is doing? It will draw your reader right out of the story.
Detach, the hero in my Gold series fudges the rules a bit. I describe him as looking either like the late Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, with hair, or a crazed biker. Is that comparing him to a celebrity? In a way I used to think so. The reason I decided to keep his description was as much an inside joke with the other characters in the story as it was the fact that most people today have no idea who Lenin was. A few years ago, I saw a documentary on Lenin and saw him in disguise with a wig on. Detach didn’t look a thing like how I pictured him with hair! That was when I threw in the crazed biker description. His real description came from a biker I once knew who somehow reminded me of Lenin. Crazy rationale, but it’s worked. I’ve steered away from that ever since.
In certain genres, such as women’s fiction and romance, the readers like the character described in detail. In that case, you still have to be very careful how you draw the character! Even if you’re describing Brad Pitt, or Fabio or George Clooney, make sure you don’t actually describe Brad Pitt, Fabio or George Clooney by name! You may describe them exactly in your mind, but your reader is likely to paint a different picture.
For most genres, drop a hint here and there. Joe stretched his tall frame as he got out of the car. Mary rubbed her blue eyes in the smoggy air. Andy tugged on his goatee while he pondered his next move. Throw these little things out but spread them throughout scenes, not all at once. Gradually draw a picture.
I decided to write this piece now because I have been keeping track of character descriptions of the past two dozen books I’ve read. Not a one of them has directly described a main character in detail. I thought about it and for most characters, I have no idea what they look like except for a general idea. You know what? I don’t care. What they look like isn’t important. The story is what matters. Of course, I’m not reading romances so I’m sure that is a factor. I read thrillers, icky bug and mysteries. The only characters that are ever described in detail are occasional bad guys and special characters, usually to magnify evil or bad traits (sometimes in stereotypical fashion). However, the main characters usually don’t get that kind of detail.
I’m not telling you not to describe your characters in detail, but you don’t have to. It’s something you can leave to the reader’s imagination.