I thought I knew about this rule, but it was really only recently that I fully grasped it.
|Photo credit: Per Jensen on Flickr|
You see, I’m a little obsessed with eyes (turns out, much of the female population is—go figure). In my art, for example, if I don’t like the way the eyes turn out, chances are I’ll dump the whole thing. I didn’t think this obsession translated into my writing until someone pointed out to me that my very male, very distressed protagonist probably wasn’t going to be noticing everyone’s eye color in the opening scene. A quick scan through my manuscript showed that I’d mentioned pretty much everyone’s eye color—including minor show-up-once characters.
Turns out, that pretty much applied to hair color too. Apparently my knee-jerk descriptions rely on the two.
As the author of our stories, we know what everyone looks like. We have a mental image of every character, every face, and our instinct is to try to paint in our readers the exact same image as the one in our minds.
Yeah, not gonna happen—nor should it.
We all have imaginations—and that includes our readers. Even if you go through the trouble of describing the way your love interest’s blonde hair never looks neat and the tint of his brown eyes and how he’s just shy of six foot and athletic and loves Levi jeans and Etnies and wears the same blue t-shirt every day, your readers will each have a different mental image of your character.
So if they’re going to imagine their own version anyway, should you really take the time to describe every character in every scene down to hair and eye color?
The short answer is no.
Guess what? Readers don’t want to know about every detail—they want to know the important details. Don’t tell us your character has black hair, blue eyes, stands at 5’9” and has a runner’s body—tell us about his crooked smile and the dimple on his cheek and the way his eyes completely pass you up when he walks past you. That’s much more powerful—agreed?
Truth is, if you leave out that your love interest’s dark hair is actually dark brown (not black) like Veronica Roth did, your readers aren’t going to feel cheated, nor will they be unable to picture your character. Whatever you don’t tell them, they’ll fill in for themselves.
It seems that sometimes we forget that readers have imaginations, too. Don’t underestimate them—they can fill in the blanks.
Leave out the general details and strive for the specific, important ones and your readers will love you for it.
Do your favorite descriptions fully describe the character or setting, or do they choose specific details?