Monday, February 6, 2012

Details that Matter: Writing Descriptions

I struggle with description--places are difficult, but people are impossible! As a reader, those stock hair-and-eye-color parts are always the ones I skip. I want to know who these people are and what they're going to do, not the hue of their t-shirts or the shape of their chins or any of the other thousand details that end up in a novel.

But I'm listening to John Irving's Until I Find You, and if you want to learn ANYTHING about writing, read John Irving.

I kept thinking about this book while I was flipping through my stack of books on character writing--bad ones with long lists of adjectives, a treasure trove of cliches. By page fifteen, I got so irritated by the meaninglessness of it all that I started throwing the books around the room. "That's not how we get to know people!" I exclaimed. "That's not what people ARE!"

Now getting back to John Irving, I kept thinking about his character Emma, who struggles with her weight, a detail that impacts all of her relationships and choices from the beginning of the book. And then there's Daughter Alice, whose modesty is a well-established fact long before we find out why it's important.

But that's it, exactly! Don't those things do a lot more for characterization than the shape of a nose? Unless you're writing Cyrano, unless it MATTERS, I can't make myself care as a reader, let alone as a writer.

So I'm going through my own writing, trying to find the details that matter and describe my characters in a way that doesn't make me cringe.

What do you think? What helps you write description? What's the hardest part of writing for you?


  1. I love all sorts of little details about characters--sometimes, especially for fantasy/sci-fi worlds, it's nice to know what people look like because different cultures and countries and worlds are being established. Eye color/skin color/hair color can be super important for culture. But I do love the little things that tell you more about a character and if it's something that helps define them. Is it important to who they ARE? And if it's important to characters or the world, I try to work it in as naturally as possible.

  2. Absolutely. I don't want to knock the importance of forming a basic idea of what a character looks like...I'm just horrible at it.