Whenever summer comes around, chances are I’ll be slouching in the shade reading a Lee Child novel. There is something very comforting about reading his books. Jack Reacher always survives, is always on the side of good, and the pace is fast and gripping. It is also a relief to read something outside my own genre, as the reading experience becomes more relaxed when I don’t go “Ooooo, that was an elegant insertion of historical detail” or “OMG: I wish I had written that!” or “That can’t be right, can it? A match in the 18th century?” (turns out it was – sort of).
So I read Lee Child to relax – except I don’t, because Mr Child is an expert at succinct descriptions, a few word sufficing to paint a person, a location, a situation, and I read and reread, because seriously, to describe your characters is an art. As a writer, I have a very clear picture of what my protagonists look like – but the moment I turn them over to the public in a published book, I’m also inviting the readers to form their own images, and to do so I must describe some things but not all things.
Take, for example, Adam de Guirande, tall and rugged 14th century knight. Now I know exactly what he looks like – all over.
“No you don’t,” Adam objects. “It’s not as if you’ve seen me stark naked.”
Umm…I sure have. I’ve seen him in the bath, I’ve seen him curled up in a dungeon, I’ve seen him hoisting his little son up in the air, I’ve seen him kissing his wife. More importantly, I’ve experienced his fears and hopes, lived through his rushes of adrenaline, felt the indescribable pain of having a mallet slammed through his foot (my toes curl) felt his heart beat faster when he sees his Kit, cried with him for Roger Mortimer when he’s dragged off in chains, hated Hugh Despenser as fervently as Adam does – the whole gamut of emotions experienced by an adult man torn apart by his loyalties in a time of severe unrest.
In each and every one of these situations, I know exactly what my fair-haired knight looks like. I know if he’s unshaven, if he has bags under his eyes, if there’s egg-yolk on his tunic (“Never,” Adam says, sounding quite offended. He’s wrong. A weakened man does not always eat as neatly as he’d like.) But I don’t impose all these visuals on my readers. I just drop some details – his scruffy hair in one scene, a vulnerable set to his mouth in another, a narrowing of his grey eyes in a third.
Other than Adam being tall, fair, grey-eyed and with a thin scar running down his face, I leave the rest of him up to my readers’ imagination. Does he have a long nose? Is there a dimple on his chin? Do his brows grow bushier towards the temples? I know, obviously, but I’ll allow each and every person who develops a relationship with Adam to decide those things for themselves. That way, they can make Adam their own. Well: He’s mine, but I can share him. (So as to avoid having my eyes scratched out by Adam’s wife, Kit, I hasten to add that ultimately he is her man, not mine. Of course.)
Lee Child has perfected a similar approach. After twenty odd Jack Reacher books, I dare say all readers have their own impression of what he might look like, and the only thing the avid Lee Child readers will agree on is that he does not look like Tom Cruise. At all. For starters, Jack Reacher is big – like very, very big. And then…Ah: that’s right, we don’t know much more than that, do we? More to the point, we don’t need to – we all have the imagination required to fill in the details.
Right: and with this I must leave you. Jack Reacher calls, and I just know that unless I keep an eye on him, he might end up in trouble. Come to think of it, Jack Reacher is ALWAYS in trouble.
As to Adam de Guirande, Timelight Press has published two out of four books in the series featuring him. The King’s Greatest Enemy is set in the 1320s and is the story of Adam, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The second book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out. Both books have been awarded Readers’ Favourite Five Star Seals, and Days has been selected an Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and selective descriptions) I urge to enter a world of political intrigue, watch my protagonists navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.
2 thoughts on “The art of description – better too little than too much!”
You make some good points on character description. Do you think the same rules apply to a first person POV character describing her/his impressions?
I think in general, people who write first person POV have a tendency to go wildly descriptive, forgetting that most of us do not narrowly inspect each and every person we meet, every place we visit. We see some things, we ignore the majority. So yes, I do believe it is applicable in first person POV as well. To use Lee Child as an example yet again, he writes some of the Jack Reacher books in first person POV. His descriptions remain tight throughout.