I went to the pub the other night and ended up being asked by two different reader friends, about a certain vertically challenged actor playing the role of a six foot five character. Both conversations got me thinking about how characters are described to readers.
Where do you start and stop when describing your lead character? Do you give a comprehensive description that is practically a photofit, do you circle round the lead darting in with the odd detail or do you say nothing?
Take the aforementioned character – Jack Reacher. We know he’s a big guy, Lee Child tells us that in every book. But what colour are his eyes? Has he a square jaw like Dolph Lundgren or is he a pretty boy like Johnny Depp? Has he scars? I guess his teeth are in good nick due to his one possession – the folding toothbrush – but other than that I don’t know what he looks like other than my own mental image. His age is never given out, although you can work it out from the clues Lee Child leaves.
I like this style of description or rather lack of it. It gives me some ownership of the character. A lot of my favourite authors employ this kind of faceless lead where the reader is given broad details but only enough to form an outline. Then the reader can colour in the character as they see them.
Fleming never gave Bond a face in the books, although we all now picture Connery, Brosnan, Moore, Craig or God forbid Lazenby. Billingham’s Tom Thorne, MacBride’s Logan McRae, Sharp’s Charlie Fox and Hilton’s Joe Hunter are also faceless characters who we the readers give faces to.
Lee Child has openly said that whoever got the part of Reacher would be wrong for the majority (can’t remember the percentage and I’m too busy to do research for such a minor point) of fans and I agree with this sentiment. Just look at any discussion as to which actor or actress would play which character or other. What you end up with is a whole host of names thrown into the hat which some agree with and others don’t.
What makes my teeth itch are massively detailed drawings of characters which are unnecessary. Sure tell me the lead’s eye colour if you want. But I don’t care about the colour of the newsagents eyes if it has no relevance to the story. Don’t waste half a page telling me shit I don’t need to know about someone I don’t care about. Be warned if you do the faceless masses will take me away with them and I won’t return to your novel.
Johnathan Kellerman gives such detailed description of clothes and perfume that I have taken my readership elsewhere due to physically feeling the tension being stolen from the story. What makes this such a shame is the fact he writes otherwise brilliant novels.
Stuart MacBride once described a character as “a baldy wee fuck of a man”. To my mind you don’t need any more than that to give the reader a snapshot of the character and in MacBride’s example the character’s character.
Please drop a comment below about how you deal with character description.