You remember Éowyn, the niece of the King of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings? The killer of the Nazgûl , for whom the confines of a woman’s life were not enough? You should remember her; she’s one of Tolkien’s only woman characters as well as one of his most fully realized. So try to tell me what color her eyes were, and I’ll suggest something important about description.
From the movies, or the fact that Rohirrim were based on the Anglo Saxons, you might deduce that her eyes were blue. However, no one can be sure, because her eye color is never mentioned. Not once. The closest Tolkien comes is when Aragorn observes a feeling of compassion in her eyes for her uncle’s condition. Éowyn’s eye color is irrelevant to her story and those who want to know it are likely to fill in the details for themselves. Readers don’t need to be given everything about her to appreciate her.
This observation runs contrary to the advice often given to beginning writers. Take, for example, bibisco, an open source equivalent of Scrivener. Bibisco’s first tip to users is that “in order to write believable characters, you must know everything about them.” All of them, apparently, from your protagonists down to the walk-ons. To help you, bibisco offers nearly a hundred different categories to fill, divided into categories like personal data, physical description, behavior, attitudes, psychology, ideas and passions. Under psychology, for instance, you are asked for “Each and every aspect of psychology.” The idea is silly beyond words, yet reviewers nod solemnly at it.
I don’t know about you, but that level of preparation would leave me with no desire to write at all. Just as importantly, it allows no space for the alterations of character due to the development of the plot, whose discoveries are one of the delights of writing.
Moreover, most of that information will never fit into the story. The days of Thomas Hardy starting a novel with a whole chapter of description are over a century past. Modern novels have no place for more than the essentials: the relevant physical descriptions and gestures are mostly all that readers will endure. And even then, you generally have to be selective. It is considered clumsy, these days, to pause the story for an info dump that reads like a police dossier. If more details prove necessary, you can give them as they become useful. For example, Tolkien might have chosen to give the color of Eowyn’s eyes from the perspective of Faramir as he proposes to her and gazes soulfully into them. Be careful, though, not to overdo the gradualism and have a character refer to his pale forehead as he brushes his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-green eyes – that’s just clumsy writing.
So how do you decide how much description is enough? In his master class, Neil Gaiman suggests that the general rule for any description is to ask how any object stands out from the rest. In the case of characters, I suggest asking yourself what you would notice when meeting the character for the first time. Is there a physical feature that is unusual? Something about the way they move? Or talk? Occupy physical space? Interact with others? It could even be the fact that nothing about them stands out (which might be a useful trait for a spy). Probably, you only have space for two or three features before the patience of the modern reader wears thin, so you can choose only what helps identifies the character, or anything that advances the plot. For instance, if you know there’s a scene coming up where the character needs to shout a warning, you could add some drama and character development by giving them a stutter to overcome. But you need to be economical.
One effective but difficult way to be economical in your description is to choose a theme in the details you choose. For example, if you describe a man as being as expressionless as a sheet of iron, and standing as immobile as a suit of armor, you create the impression of a hard, formidable person. Similarly, if you describe a woman in terms of the rich fabrics and embroideries she wears, you make her sound rich and fashion-conscious.
More simply, you can use a metaphor. The past master of description by metaphor was the mystery writer Raymond Chandler,who not only created vivid characters using metaphors, but let readers fill in the details and gave an impression of the viewpoint character in the description. Often, too, the metaphors were hilarious. For example, Chandler described one character as being “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.” Another character described himself as being “an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” Probably his best known description remains, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” Notice how these examples concentrate on the impression that a character creates, leaving the reader to fill in most physical details. Chandler has been parodied so many times that many of his descriptions seem too over the top today, but a more subdued version of his technique remains possible. For instance, I recently described a character as looking like a plant that had been left unwatered for too long.
All these approaches to description demand thought and economy. All, too, are far more demanding than the encyclopedia-like info dump that novice writers often feel is required. But they are also more effective and efficient, and can move a story along in more way than one.