How much description is enough?
He is tall and wiry; he has a thin goatee and an earring; he wears a black leather jacket and black leather trousers. He looks older than most students; he looks like trouble.
This description of a character’s appearance appears early in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, one of my favorite novels of recent years. For our purposes, it doesn’t necessarily matter who the character is. (For the record, he’s the thuggish older boyfriend of the student who is having an affair with the novel’s protagonist.) The description isn’t particularly detailed or specific—it sees the character only on the surface, and is really just a record of a first impression—but it more than serves its purpose. We see this character clearly enough to retain a consistent mental image of how he looks, and, more importantly, how he appears to our protagonist. Like just about every sentence in Coetzee’s novel, this is good, concise writing, economical and concrete. Given the character’s significant but ultimately secondary role in the story, that’s probably enough. Or is it?
James Wood would say no. In a pointedly skeptical review of Coetzee’s book—of which he says “It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel”—Wood uses this particular description as an example of the limits of Coetzee’s tight, compressed style. No real person is ever really adequately described in just a few sentences, Wood argues, and Coetzee’s refusal to look at this character more closely is a sign of authorial coldness, or even resistance to reality. (He says elsewhere that elements of Coetzee’s style “would not be out of place in a mass-market thriller,” which he clearly regards as a devastating insult.) Wood, famously, is a devotee of Saul Bellow, one of the great writers of character descriptions, and when he criticizes Coetzee for not going deep enough, one suspects that he’d rather see a description like this one in Humboldt’s Gift:
Rinaldo was extremely good-looking with a dark furry mustache as fine as mink, and he was elegantly dressed…His nose was particularly white and his large nostrils, correspondingly dark, reminded me of the oboe when they dilated. People so distinctly seen have power over me. But I don’t know which comes first, the attraction or the close observation.
But is there a right or wrong way to describe our characters? The difference between the styles of Coetzee and Bellow—between the concise signifier of appearance and the luxuriant jungle of personal description—strikes me as pretty fundamental, and every writer will tend to come down on one side or another. In my own case, as a writer, yes, of mass-market thrillers, I prefer to describe characters in the compressed Coetzee fashion, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. This is partly because I think it’s closer to the way we actually tend to see the people around us, in a sort of nonverbal shorthand. When I read the riot of noticing in authors like Bellow or Updike, I’m impressed and delighted, but not quite convinced that this is really how their characters would see the world. And even if I grant the author the freedom to notice things more deeply, a detailed physical description often makes a character seem less real and distinct to me—I have trouble seeing them through the flurry of adjectives.
My own ideal, which isn’t for everyone, is a kind of fictional transparency, with as little as possible interposed between the reader and the story—and if that means I need to stint on specificity for the sake of momentum, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. In The Icon Thief, I devote maybe a sentence to the looks of each main character: I provide a few tags—like Powell’s “thick glasses and alarmingly high forehead”—and trust the reader to supply the rest. And different characters require different approaches, even within the same novel. In The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, Thomas Harris describes Hannibal Lecter at length—his red eyes, his head sleek like a mink’s—but I don’t think there’s a single line of description for Clarice Starling. (“She knew she could look all right without primping” is the most we get.) It’s easy to see why: Lecter is seen from the outside, while we spend most of the novel inside Clarice’s head. And even if we aren’t told how to picture her, she’s still utterly real. Not bad for a mass-market thriller.