How much description?
This is a very tricky thing I find. Mainly it has to do with confidence in your voice, and belief in what you’re writing, but I usually find myself asking if what I’m seeing is being translated. And of course, this all has to do with description.
It also has to do with research. A lot of my fiction usually involves lots of technical “stuff”. Lots of guns, lots of cars, lots of computer jargon, most of which I don’t have the first clue about. Guns, well they shoot bullets don’t they? But personally, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a Glock and a Walther PPK. Cars? They get you from one place to another. But make and type, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
I was reading William Gibson’s All Tomorrows Parties recently, and my attention was drawn to the fact that he does this. For instance, he’ll say that a car is a black Subaru SUV. And I find that’s all the description that’s needed. Hell if I know what a black Subaru SUV looks like specifically, but it gives a general idea of what the car is about, and that’s to the wonderful world of stereotyping, we all know what kind of people drive large black SUVs. This is something I’ve introduced in my own work. Its fine saying “get the car”, most people will fill in the blank anyway. But throw in make and type and, those in the know will be able to picture it, and if you don’t, then hell, it’s a car; it gets you from one place to the other.
It all comes down to that first, and perhaps most sacred writing rule. SHOW DON’T TELL. You can spend paragraphs telling the reader exactly what a character looks like, but to someone like me who has never been particularly good at picturing what I’m reading (I can see the words and the story, but as for setting and place, I’ve never been able to put myself into the world of a book.) its not going to do much good. I guess that’s why most writers don’t really describe their characters in great detail. It has always stuck with me from a number of Robert Rankin’s books; about his character Lazlo Woodbine (some call him Laz). He’s a spoof of those hard boiled private Investigators like Philip Marlowe, who only operates in the first person. He operates this way and is never described so that the reader can picture themselves in the role. And I guess this may be true in a certain sense.
I’ve worried about this greatly. About how much detail to put into describing characters. But if you do your job right, then you get a good sense of the character from their actions, the way they talk, the way they move, the way they live. Get all of that down, and you only need the minimal amount of physical description. This is also true of script writing. Perhaps even more so. Because let’s face it, it’s pointless describing what a character looks like in a script, because it narrows your casting choices. But here’s an exercise for you to try, should you feel the need. If you’re writing a script, or a book, or whatever, try describing all of your main characters in a single sentence each. I think the best description I even came up with for a character was-
Raymond – A young man weighted down by the burden of ordinariness.
So there you are. Have a go, and see how creative you can get.