When I first moved to Colorado, I noticed a big difference in the styles of ski apparel. A local skier can, just by looking at the clothing of the skier, determine whether that skier is an east coaster on vacation or a fellow local up for the day. There are similar ways to determine who’s who by the way people carry their skis or walk in ski boots – small nuances of motion that give clues to skill level. However I might prejudge a skier, though, there are always those who defy expectations. I’ve seen east-coast dressers shred it, and I’ve seen western locals who suck. Like many other things in life, how you look doesn’t really matter.
Writing is no different. I don’t like to include physical descriptions of my characters in my writing. I’m often accused of this fault, but I don’t think this is a fault. Even as a reader, I don’t want to be told what a character looks like because, for me, characterization means more than physical description.
In The Dead, James Joyce breaks away from the action so many times to deliver physical description that it becomes noticeably disruptive. He interrupts dialogue to show his character Gabriel: “He was a stout, tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat.”
Okay… so we know he wears glasses and has recently worn a hat. But does this tell us anything real about the character? Does a reader relate to hairless faces or glossy black hair? Don’t get me wrong here, Joyce is a damned good writer – but I’m more concerned with the story he writes than what the characters look like. Especially when what he looks like gets in the way of the action.
Worse than interrupting the action for description is trying to disguise it in the action. I’m turned off by the peppering of a paragraph with physical attributes. Below is a made-up example that would annoy me if I were to read it in real writing:
David’s strong legs pushed his six-foot, six-inch body up the three flights of stairs. He heard the clicking of his size ten patent leather shoes as he ascended. When he reached the door, he combed his hand through his brown hair and took a deep breath, exhaling through his small button nose. He rapped his delicate knuckles against the door…
What does 6’6” look like? Does brown hair indicate a personality type? Are those minor actions-cum-description particularly important to the plot or characterization? Not really. Moreover, in real life, unless you’re consciously taking a moment to notice physicality (ie – checking out the girl that walks past or the guy across the room), how often do you notice physicality when in the midst of action? When a soccer player scores a goal, you watch the ball go into the net. You don’t comment on how great his calf looked right then. And does calf size indicate anything about ego? But the way that athlete celebrates the goals… well that can say a lot about who he is.
Now, I’m not advocating that there be NO physical description of characters; that’s just impossible. But I am advocating strong discretion when describing characters. If you include a physical description, it has to do more than just tell the reader how the character looks. It should tell who the character is, how she acts, reacts, feels, etc. In fact, this should be reversed – by telling how she acts, reacts, and feels, the reader should get a physical image.
I recently came across a great example of disguised physical description in George Saunders’s Tenth of December (the title story to the collection). As the main character Robin walks through snow, he’s off in his own fantasy, dreaming about interacting with Suzanne, the girl Robin likes. In the fantasy internal dialogue, Robin thinks, “Yes, Suzanne said. We also have a pool. You should come over this summer. It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on.”
From one line “It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on” the reader learns that Robin is overweight, that he’s uncomfortable with his body and self conscious. Not only does this give us readers a physical clue, but it also shows us how Robin feels about his own body and even tugs at the readers’ sympathy (because who wasn’t self conscious about some part of their body in middle and high school?). But what makes this physical description so amazingly great is that it doesn’t actually describe anything physical. Saunders's brilliance comes from a non-present character’s use of a T-shirt to show the main character’s physical makeup.
When it comes to writing characters, feel free to judge the book by its cover. But just don’t write a book cover.