Character Descriptions, or the Lack Thereof, in Books

I’ve noticed something odd, during my time as a writer and reader. Has anyone else noticed this? The vast majority of books don’t give detailed descriptions of their main characters, if they give any description at all. At most, we might get “red-haired with tan skin”. What shade of red? How tan? Are we talking swanky-tanning-salon tan? Or tan from working outside under the baking sun all day? Because those two kinds of “tan” are going to give readers very different impressions of the character.

And honestly, I’m not sure why so many authors skimp on description. I’ve seen it repeated again and again, on author blogs and in writing instruction books: “Don’t describe your main character. The reader will create their own image.”

Why leave it up to the reader? When we watch movies, we don’t expect the main character to be this odd, faceless blob that we can all just imprint our personal preferences and biases on. Movie characters are portrayed by actors, who obviously have their own appearances. Now, some actors might change their appearance a bit here and there, like caking on some make up if they’re appearing as an alien, or losing or gaining a lot of weight. But it’s still the same actor, still the same basic appearance. It doesn’t matter how much blue make-up you slather onto Yondu Udonta from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, I still see Michael Rooker’s face.

(Brief aside: guess who just watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for the sixth time? It’s my new favorite MCU movie.)

Yet when it comes to books, authors are expected to leave their main characters as these sort of blank canvasses, in hopes that the reader will empathize with them better. Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I find a person who has absolutely nothing to say about his or her appearance odd at the very least, downright creepy at most. Everyone has things they like about their faces, and things they hate. Personally, if I had to choose just one facial trait to keep while everything else was changed, I’d choose my eyebrows. I love my eyebrows. But that’s neither here nor there.

While I don’t advise going deep into layers and layers and layers of exact, detailed description on everything from the way their orange skin glistens in the purple suns of the G’Fyggg star system to the way their hips sway as they wiggle this way and that, I do generally expect some kind of description. Hair, eye, and skin color is generally my minimum. If they have any noticeable identifying marks (scars, birthmarks, etc.), that can help too.

Let me tell you a story: a while back, I read a book that bothered me. I couldn’t tell exactly why it bothered me until I finished it and thought about it for a couple hours, then the answer came to me: I had no idea what the main heroine looked like.

The two main characters were husband and wife, with the point of view switching between the two of them every chapter. That’s fine. We even got a basic description of the husband a few chapters in — white, middle-aged, balding, not exactly handsome — which is also fine. But I had no idea what the wife (or, by extension, their daughter) looked like.

Now, there are certain settings where you can make assumptions about what a person looks like unless told otherwise. For example, you’d expect a story set in Japan to feature a Japanese person, and you might expect a story set in the rural deep south to involve a redneck clan or two. But this story was set in South Africa, with a white husband. So… was the wife white, or black? The story never said, and it bothered me that I had no idea whether I was “supposed” to imagine a white woman or a black woman when I thought about the wife.

So yes, I do like a bit of description in my stories. But even in-story description isn’t really necessary if the book has illustrations and/or a descriptive cover. Think of all the book covers out there with a person on the cover. A model, or someone drawn from the artist’s imagination, it doesn’t matter which. Chances are that the person on the cover is going to become the reader’s image of the main character(s). Now, person-covers have their own issues, as they’re so common so they need to be unique to truly stand out, but at least that’s one problem solved by using them. They also seem to be fairly unpopular, and I’m not sure why.

One of my favorite stories, “Faking Normal” by Courtney C. Stevens, has a picture of the main character on it, placing her as a teenaged girl with brown hair, freckles, and brownish-green eyes. Not exactly exotic, but at least I know what to imagine.

Sadly, not many authors do this, and I think I know why: it’s treated almost like a taboo in the writing and publishing industry. I read one tip on a blog for self-published authors, offering advice for book covers. One of the first tips I read essentially said “don’t put a picture of your main character or a scene from the book on the cover, since it robs the reader of the right to imagine it for themselves, and that’s rude”.

Never mind that that kind of thing actually helps me, because I know exactly what I should think about when I consider the character. But I also don’t like being called rude by a complete stranger for what I like, so I didn’t even finish the article before I clicked the back-button.

For the life of me, I just don’t know why this is such a big deal. Movies and video games, easily the two most popular forms of fiction and entertainment, almost always involve “literal representations” of their characters, either via actors or character models. So why is it a taboo for books?

I hope that I’m not the only one with this pet peeve, since I’ve only ever seen praise for the shun character description method. Either way, I’m going to continue sneaking character description into my books, if only to stay true to myself and (hopefully) help out anyone who feels the same way.

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