My thinking board
My thoughts about this & that...
How do you create a mental picture of book characters?
I'm in the middle of rewriting my historical suspense story, Unbroken Curse, that I published in 2016. The past 5 years I've grown a lot as a writer, so I thought that it's about time to revisit the old story.
In my early books, The Ancestor's Secrets series (2012), which is next on my needs-rewriting-list, I had a tendency to keep going on and on about parts that didn't really move the story forward, but later on my writing style turned into a more minimalist scene and character description.
What is your opinion?
The overdetailed description
Personally, when I read a story, I get easily annoyed by extremely detailed descriptions.
If the story plays out in present time and the author describes the character's outfit in minute details, it doesn't even give me a chance to use my imagination.
This is not from an actual book, but I've read something similar:
She had shoulder length, platinum blond curly hair. She was tall and skinny with long legs. Her face oval shaped, sky-blue eyes large with long lashes. She stood in front of the walk-in closet selecting her outfit for the meeting. She chose a teal-blue knee length dress that accentuated her womanly curves. Next, she picked her black Italian leather open toed high-heels that showed off her freshly pedicured, coral-pink nails.
You get the picture. For me, it's too long and way too detailed.
The minimalist descriptions
In most of my stories I give little detail about how the characters look, but I think the reader can picture the characters with ease:
The excited murmurs of a group of archeology students at the bottom of the large, six feet deep hole sounded muffled. But when a lanky young man in dusty overall climb the stepladder and yelled out to the lead archeologist standing by the tent, his voice boomed, “Helen, you have to see this!”
The plump woman with salt and pepper hair pulled into a tight bun froze for a second, and then started running toward the student.
Here is another example of the minimalist description:
The tall security guard walked down the path between the thick bushes to the clearing where the archeological team parked their cars. Despite his promise, his porky partner’s chin dropped to his chest as soon as he was out of sight. I’ll just close me eyes for a moment. He though. His breathing slowed as he fell asleep.
What do you think? Do the two characters need more detailed description?
When details are much needed
In this part of the story that plays out in the 400s, I felt like a lot more description was necessary because readers are not familiar with the style of this age in central Europe.
Elana hurried up to the entrance of the tent-like building, called Jurta, with a few long strides. Parting her kaftan-like dark blue overcoat, she pulled up her baggy trousers and smoothed her tunic that her mother had adorned with delicate flower designs. Pulling the leather entrance cover aside with a heavy sigh, she braced herself mentally for the long lecture of her mother that she knew she must endure.
As usual, she was late for her herbal lessons with her mother, a beautiful, statuesque, dark-haired woman who slowly rose from a curved sofa-like piece of furniture. Soft light coming from the opening at the ceiling shone on her green, delicately decorated calf-length tunic that she wore with loose black trousers. Her hair was braided with thin leather thongs and hugged her shoulders.
Do you think it's unnecessarily too detailed?
When the personality of the character revealed in dialogs
The old stone mill quarry in the mountains on the Northeast side of Hungary had been buzzing with activity for days. Archaeologists found 16th century artifacts the year before, but when they restarted the site in the spring and dug deeper, they’d unearthed an ancient burial site in the six-foot-deep layer. As the initial assessment estimated, this layer had been buried since the 5th century.
The excited murmurs of a group of archeology students at the bottom of the large, six feet deep hole sounded muffled. But when a lanky young man in dusty overalls ascended the stepladder and yelled out to the lead archeologist standing by the tent, his voice boomed, “Helen, you have to see this!”
A middle-aged plump woman with salt and pepper hair pulled into a tight bun froze for a second, and then started running toward the student. “What did you find?” she wheezed, her chest tightening by the sudden excitement and anticipation.
“Come down and see!” The student hurried down the stepladder giving space to Helen to descend into the deep, large space.
“Damn!” she exclaimed when her shaky legs missed a step, but the young man broke her fall and steadied her on her feet. “Thanks,” she mumbled.
“Look!” One of the female students pointed at the white horse skull poking halfway out of the soil. “Look at that beautiful bridle!” She looked up at Helen beaming with joy.
“It’s magnificent!” Helen whispered. “The finest craftsmanship I’ve even seen.” She carefully ran her fingers through dry, hardened leather. “The usage of gold and alloy of copper and zinc proves that this warrior had a funeral fit for a noble leader.” She knelt by the skull and took the brush from her student. “I got this. You three start unearthing the rest of the skeleton,” she pointed and added with a stern look on her face. “Be careful!”
The other two holes they dug days ago were occupied by students kneeling in the dirt, brushes and fine chisels in their hands. They carefully scraped away the dirt layer by layer. Next to them laid out on a weathered tarp were weapons, jewelry, and everyday items from around the beginning of the 5th century. They had been working in the hole since dawn knowing it would be too hot to work close to midday when they would be forced to take a break until around mid-afternoon.
What are they buzzing about? A gangly, middle-aged man in a security guard uniform peeked into the deep pit planting his feet firmly to the ground. Good! Them keep finding stuff is my job security. He straightened up with a grunt and turned to find his partner. That fool is sleeping again! He walked over to the tent and punched his stocky partner’s shoulder who was softly snoring in a fold-up chair under the shade of the tall oak tree by the tent. “Hey, sleeping beauty!”
“Uh, what? Jesus! I ain’t sleeping. Just restin’ me eyes,” the balding man sat up straight and wiped spittle from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.
“If they catch you snoozing, you can say goodbye to this well-paying cushy job,” the lanky man warned his friend.
“Yeah, yeah,” the heavyset man mumbled. “They’re in the holes busy brushing dirt off of old stuff. And who would come up to this place to steal anything, anyway?” He stretched his hands over his head and let out a loud yawn before reclining once more on the fold-up chair with obvious intent to resume his slumber.
“Just keep your eyes open! I’m gonna drive down to town to pick up the breakfast from the coffee shop.”
“Okay, hurry up. I’m starving.”
The tall man walked down the path between the thick bushes to the clearing where the archeological team parked their cars. Despite his promise, his porky partner’s chin dropped to his chest as soon as he was out of sight. I’ll just close me eyes for a moment, he thought. His breathing slowed as he fell asleep.
As a reader, do you need a detailed description of the character's body type, outfit, and personality?
Or you like to create your mental imagine from a few vague details given by the author?
Let me know in comments!
Erika M Szabo
Author of urban fantasy, magical realism novels and children's books,
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