We had an interesting conversation in my book club a few months ago. The topic was characters’ appearances and how much each of us as readers envision the characters in our mind when we read. The responses ranged from very detailed and realistic, to a body with the character’s name in place of their head.
For me, I like enough detail about a character that I can envision them, but I don’t need every single detail given to me. With that much detail, I’m going to miss something. However, I don’t mind if there’s too many details given, rather than not enough. I really do “see” the characters in mind’s eye( and what not), and want to have some idea of what they look like. Unlike last topic with details/texture, I don’t mind “random” bits about how a character looks, because to me those are necessary for me to get the most out of my reading experience.
In my own writing, I try to follow that same idea. Just enough detail so the reader knows what the character looks like, but leave a little to the imagination (’cause I’m a tease like that). However, in RED SKY, there’s a point where the protag describes Graham, her best friend, in great detail:
His arm curls around my shoulders and pulls me closer. I can smell the traces of spearmint gum on his breath. I look at his perfect nose, his thin lips, unattached earlobes, high cheekbones. Everything but those disconcerting, clear eyes.
I did this on purpose: to show how well Audrey knows his face, and to show how closely she’s inspecting him right now (which fits with the scene).
Something else I try to do with every character I describe is include something unique about their appearance. This advice came from my professor, Marlin Barton, and I’ve really latched onto it. If a character looks interesting, then I’ll be more likely to flesh them out and make them three-dimensional, no matter how small the character. This isn’t something I can do in the first draft–heaven knows FRACTURED RADIANCE is littered with flat minor chars right now–but it’s more a job for revisions. My next prof, the fabulous Leslie Pietrzyk, even made the comment (without knowing Bart’s advice to me) that even my bit characters were vivid and lively.
So what about you? What kind of details of a char’s appearance do you like to read? Do you need a complete play-by-play, from hair length to the grooming level of his nails, or would you rather have a blank slate, so your mind can play?