Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How much description is enough?

with 7 comments

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.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2012 at 10:19 am

7 Responses

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  1. I agree: there are many ways, not only those associated with literary realism, to delineate character. The movement of a character’s eyes, even what they focus on and what they overlook, provide insights that an omniscient narrator (who I always regard as a separate character) is often unable to provide. I also like to understand character by way of what a characters says, and when.


    June 5, 2012 at 10:28 am

  2. For me, character is defined by action. That’s another reason why I’m not a fan of elaborate description: a paragraph spent describing someone’s looks would often be better spent showing that character doing something.


    June 5, 2012 at 11:06 am

  3. On the other hand, Dickens is an acknowledged master of characterisation and his descriptions teem with detail. But who reads Dickens today except for Eng Lit students? Most of us now have a shorter concentration span than he requires. Fashions change, even in literature. His first ten pages would probably be rejected by agents today. Chill. I’m with you – less is more.

    Catherine McCallum

    June 6, 2012 at 12:09 am

  4. Dickens does, however, have one of the best concise character descriptions in all of literature: the young man in David Copperfield “with such long legs that he looked like the afternoon shadow of somebody else.”


    June 6, 2012 at 10:26 am

  5. Yes, of course. It’s a long time since I read Dickens and I think I may be too influenced by the excellent BBC productions with their wealth of visual detail.

    Catherine McCallum

    June 7, 2012 at 12:30 am

  6. Hope you don’t mind a long comment on an older post.

    Mark Haddon’s.The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an interesting case. First person POV, the narrator is autistic. If he’d given insightful, creative descriptions of the people he’d encountered, it would have been wrong for his character. So, for instance, we meet a woman cop. The narrator’s full description is that she has a run in her stocking. We are distanced from the other characters, but we get an inside view of the main character.

    My takeaway is that your description of a character can say as much about you as it does about the other guy. Consider these descriptions:

    1. She was so uptight anal that a lump of coal shoved up her butt wouldn’t be crushed into a diamond; it would be crushed into a black hole.

    2. She was sharp and organized, I knew I could trust her to do her job, and do it thoroughly.

    3. She looked good in her neatly pressed blouse and skirt, the button-down type who would be (I hoped) a wild woman in bed.

    4. The was a librarian there, of course. I barely noticed her.

    5. The human female was cleaner and more methodical than most of her worthless species.

    All the same woman. Each description tells you as much about the describer as about the subject.

    Even if the story is third-person POV, your descriptions may say more about you than you intend.


    March 13, 2017 at 11:02 pm

  7. @dellstories: “Each description tells you as much about the describer as about the subject.” Absolutely. When used consciously, it can be a critical part of the writer’s voice. Unconsciously, it can lead to the “faults of soul” that John Gardner discusses in The Art of Fiction.


    March 27, 2017 at 10:14 am

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