There are three types of authors when it comes to character description and, just like Goldilocks and her porridge, only one of them gets it just right. Of course, this means the other two provide way too much information or not nearly enough. It’s a fine line. It’s also difficult to please all readers in this area because some prefer a lot of description in order to have a comprehensive image of the character in their mind and some prefer the bare minimum so that they can do some of the imagining for themselves.
So does it matter what they look like? I’m going to use a few Shakespearean examples to answer the question. (Shakespeare’s plays are usually a great example of everything to do with writing.) Sometimes it doesn’t. In Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves play the brothers Don Pedro and Don John. While Don John is described as a “bastard”, an illegitimate son, there is no mention of any specific cultural characteristics so Branagh decided to give his version of the story one black brother and one white brother. However, it’s the illegitimacy of the second son that is relevant, not his different skin colour.
But sometimes your characters’ physical features will be a key part of the plot itself. Shakespeare’s play Othello is the story of a dark-skinned man described as a Moor, who has advanced through the ranks to become a general in the Venetian army in a society composed mainly of white or light-skinned people. If the story were set in this day and age, then the fact that he is a Moor would be of almost no relevance. But because the story was written in the 1600s when dark-skinned people in English society were considered part of the “other”, his otherness – particularly his physical otherness – is a very important part of the story. When Othello is summoned to his superiors after eloping with his new wife, he is forced to explain that their marriage was the result of love and not witchcraft. Not too many white people would suffer those sorts of suspicions or accusations.
There are non-Shakespearean (very, very non-Shakespearean) examples in my upcoming novel, Black Spot. In the story, my main character has significant and obvious scars on her face and arms and when she’s around people she doesn’t know, she goes to great lengths to conceal them, dropping her head so that her hair hangs over the disfiguring marks and wearing long sleeves in weather that usually wouldn’t call for it. Her father has also removed all mirrors from their home and kept her isolated on the family farm to protect her from staring eyes and hurtful remarks (even her own). So when I wrote a scene in which she finally gets to see herself after six long years, the description of what she sees seemed particularly important. It’s not hugely descriptive – her lips are pink, her nose is long, her cheeks are like rosy apples, her eyes are green and her scar is purple (hmmm, I may have just had an epiphany about how much I use colour as a descriptive tool for my characters) – but for a character who hasn’t seen what she looks like for years, it’s huge for her. “I didn’t know my eyes were green,” she says and she marvels at how much she looks like her long-dead mother (who is described previously in the book as the character looks at a photograph of her).
So now that we’ve got a handle on when your characters’ physical appearance matters and when it doesn’t, here are a few guidelines that might help you be one of the authors who gets it just right.
There Are Things That Only Need to Be Described Once
Unless your story takes place over a long time and your characters age or they have significant plastic surgery, things like eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, the shape of their nose, face, hands, butt, etc, only need to be described once. There are only so many references to a mop of curly brown hair that readers are willing to put up with before they will start to tear their own out at the repetitive and unnecessary appearances of that particular physical description.
There Are Things That Can Change and Might Need to Be Described Again
Of course, there are also things that change about people and that might need to be referred to again such as different clothes, make-up, a new hairstyle or a physical injury. If a woman is wearing too much make-up in the opinion of another character after previously seeing her wearing less of it (and it’s relevant – to plot or character development), then that woman might need to be described again. If someone has a new black eye (and it’s relevant – surely that’s always going to be relevant? Most people would be concerned or curious about how it happened, right?), then a description of that character’s eyes would be appropriate, even if they’ve already been described before. If someone’s wearing a wedding dress in a scene, then it’s probably going to be worth mentioning as well as worth a little bit of effort to paint the picture. I think you see where I’m going with this.
Physical Description Doesn’t Have to Occur All at Once
It’s also worth mentioning that physical description of a character doesn’t have to occur all at once. Just because a new character is introduced in the story doesn’t mean we have to know everything there is to know about them right then and there. After all, in real life it takes time for all this information to be presented and absorbed. Even things that perhaps we should see from the start are often overlooked or hidden or given a different perspective from the first meeting to the second and subsequent encounters.
So if a character is in more than one scene in your story, then it’s okay to spread the load a little.
Not Everybody Has to Be Good Looking
This is a real bugbear of mine (almost as much of a bugbear as how every character these days seems to have a superpower or unique characteristic instead of being a normal person). It’s perfectly acceptable for characters to be average looking or funny looking or okay looking or attractive to a certain kind of person or just one person. If literature represented the real world, we’d have a lot more models and actors than we currently do (and we already have more than we really need).
Making the physical appearance of your character interesting rather than mind-blowingly gorgeous is a lot more fun, a lot more realistic and a lot less likely to induce eye-rolling amongst readers.
If you like detailed character description, then write detailed character description. If you don’t, then there’s no need to torture yourself by going overboard. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself somewhere close to that happy middle ground of just the right amount.