I’ve often heard from beta readers that they need a physical description of a character to picture him or her. I don’t if I have something attitudinal in their speech or gestures – I fill in the rest. Regardless some people need it and those who don’t shouldn’t be disturbed when they have a physical description.
But how boring is it to recite descriptors that would be found on a driver’s license? For instance, “He walked into the room. Six foot tall. 185 lbs. Brown hair, blue eyes.”
If we’re going to use the ink, isn’t it better to advance plot and/or deepen character with these brush strokes. I ran across this example from Colin Dexter’s The Daughter of Cain the other day that took my breath away. (By the way, the audiobooks are a treasure. Dexter’s writing is superlative and the narration by Frederick Davidson is a master class. Kevin Whatley also narrates a number of them.)
Try to guess who the point of view character is and who he’s describing:
“The bone structure of her face looked gaunt below the pallid cheeks; her eyes…might once have sparkled like those of glaucopis Athene, but now were dull – a sludgy shade of green, like the waters of the Oxford canal; her nose – tip-tilted in slightly concave fashion, like the contour of a nursery ski-slop – was disfigured (as he saw things) by two cheap-looking silver rings one drilled through either nostril; her lips, marginally on the thin side of the Aristotelian mean, were ever thickly daubed with a shade of bright orange – a shade that would have been permanently banned from her mouth by any mildly competent beautician…”
I know I had a pretty strong idea of who he was to her, who she was to him, his background, her background, and his opinion of her by the end of the passage.
While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.
6. Sales: Is the Publisher Selling Books?