A thought about description

I’ve been listening to a number of podcasts recently and a couple of them seem to be running with the same topic; description.

We all know that, to some degree, description can be the bane of our novels. Whilst we want to tell the reader everything about our world and the characters that inhabit it, we often overstep the mark to our detriment.

Although the podcasts do a much better job of providing examples ranging from characters who are never described through to almost chapter length descriptions, a couple of points seemed to resonate within me.

Firstly, one exercise that suggested taking a book to a busy place and spending two or three seconds watching an individual. After the time was up, you should write down one or two key characteristics of that individual and then use that concise text when you next feel the need to describe a character in your next story. Moreover, the exercise suggested watching them a number of times and, once you’ve built up a clearer picture of that individual, layer that description of that character throughout your story rather than dumping it in one particular page. The thought process being that the reader should begin to notice more things about your character the more time they spend with them.

Secondly, we should allow our readers to form their own perspective of our characters. Too often the view of the character is so detailed and heavy that the reader will feel restricted within their imagination; give the reader too much description and their mind’s eye has little to do. The last thing we want as writers is to give our readers so little to think about that their mind starts to wander about TV, PC, eating or anything else that isn’t reading our books.

This really hit home with me when I thought back to my first memories of the Lord of the Rings books. Back in 1978 when I was a young lad, I’d spend hours in my bedroom under the glow of a bedside lamp treading the land of Middle-Earth. I’d be the tenth member of the Fellowship experiencing the adrenalin of every sword swing and cowering whenever the Nazgul were close.

I can’t remember whether Tolkien gave me chapter-and-verse description of the characters, or of Middle-Earth, but I do know that my mind was filled with my own visions of what the hobbits, elves and orcs looked like. I knew what Mordor looked like and I knew that I wanted to live in the Shire. To me, Tolkien did a wonderful job and it’s one of the reasons that I now have a collection of over 500 different Tolkien books. Whenever I think back to that dark bedroom and my teenage self reading into the early hours of the morning, it makes me smile.

However, when the movies came out in 2000, the visual imagery was so strong that it quickly overwrote whatever images my teenage mind had dreamt up. It saddens me a great deal that whenever I think of Frodo, I get an image of Elijah Wood. Think of Gandalf and I picture Sir Ian McKellan, and who else can mistaken Gollum for anyone else other than Andy Serkis. Although the movies have provided me with some wonderful memories, I can no longer remember how I used to view the land of Middle-Earth, and its characters, as a young boy.

What I’m trying to convey is that if you over-describe your characters, if you restrict the boundaries for where your readers imagination can roam and try to stamp your own mark on everything, then only one of two things can happen.

  • Your readers will never feel that the characters were written for them, to be enjoyed by them. Instead they’ll feel like they’re watching your characters from afar, devoid of any sense of attachment.
  • If your descriptions are anything less than perfect, you’ll be short-changing your readers and they deserve better than that (whether they realise it or not).

Conversely, if you relinquish something of your characters to your readers, if you share your characters with them, they’ll build up such a multitude of descriptions for your characters that you could never match in words. Each time someone reads your book, your characters will be born anew with fresh faces injecting new life with each turn of the page.

It’s one of those rare moments in life when you can accomplish more by doing less.

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