To Describe A Character Or Not

Something that I’ve come to believe is popular opinion: it’s better to describe characters as little as possible, if at all. I believe this is a popular opinion due to the fact that I have heard from and read of a great deal of people who hold it. I find myself inclined to disagree.

One of the first facets/symptoms of a Mary Sue that I tend to hear Dither mention when called upon to explain to someone unaware of the term is that the character accused of Sue-ness is described in inordinate detail and with tremendous frequency. (although he sounds less of a ponce when he says it) In spite of this, I don’t think that describing a character is enough to even get started at making one’s character a Mary Sue. It’s more the attitude that leads to the excessively detailed presentment.

When people tell me that a feature they like in a book is that the characters are not described, I think they are mistaken. They don’t necessarily like that. The book is simply written so well that they don’t want anything more from it, coinciding with the fact that the characters are not given physical descriptions. (e.g., the lame hair/eye combo) Most importantly, a reader is able to obtain a mental impression of the characters by their actions, the setting, and the story.

“He stood against the buffeting shouts like a mountain in the face of a gale” could imply the character’s build. And that’s just the most direct example I can imagine right now.

I think other people are just as sick as I am of the rote physical descriptions that most writers provide. So other writers are considered (or consider themselves to be) superior by way of not describing any physical characteristics at all. This, I feel, goes too far the other way.

It’s almost cheating. I have yet to see a bad writer try it, as far as I can recall just now. Probably if a bad writer did consciously refrain from describing his or her characters, the result would be a Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue. That’s my assumption, anyway.

There’s my two cents. It’s not a boon to have character description essentially missing from the narrative. It’s simply being delivered in a better way than, “He’s got brown hair and blue eyes.”

Maybe everything is down to habits.


4 thoughts on “To Describe A Character Or Not

  1. “The main character is your vehicle for the story. If you focus too much on your ride, you get a Mary Sue.” No, I still sound like a ponce. ;)

    You should blog about the conversation we had about Harry Potter. You can call me a ponce. :D

  2. It was the one we had with Jared, I think after Lisa left – we talked about Harry Potter was a Sue, and the only reason it didn’t seriously detract from the story came about because he was A) enabled by Dumbledore, and B) almost universally loathed by everyone who knew him at all in-universe.

    Harry was punished by the head of his house, Professor McGonagall. He was hated by Filch and Snape, he was hated by the most popular house in fandom, Slytherin. And outside of his Two Stooges, he had almost no friends in his own house – and they actively sulked around him and turned on him when he caused trouble or cost their house points.

    • XD Actually, I don’t think we said anything about him being universally hated. People were intensely fickle towards him–they would flip based on what served the purpose. If everything was normal, everyone fawned on him. If conflict was necessary, everyone in his world was a fair-weather friend. But that just seems to underline the Mary Sue problem, not lessen it.

      I think you’re misremembering that I pointed out that the only people who disliked him consistently were characters that we were all but told outright to hate. You went on to argue that he was punished by McGonagall, but that was a mitigating factor, not part of the point.

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