How do you create a mental picture of book characters?
I'm in the middle of rewriting my romantic historical suspense story, The Cursed Bloodline, 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 neighbor’s dog started barking again. Sofia rolled her eyes. What is he barking at now? Did a leaf fall from the tree? She thought, feeling less worried and more annoyed. “You know, I should have stayed in our house in Queens. It’s quieter there. I haven’t been sleeping well the entire week. This stupid dog down the street barks all the time, and it sounds like nobody in this building sleeps at night. These crazy people down the hall are having a zoomba class or something at midnight and… I hate it here.”
“You know you couldn’t stay by yourself, you’re not eighteen yet. I’m your guardian and I’m sorry I had to leave and couldn’t be at your graduation.”
“I’m only two months shy of eighteen, but never mind that. I can hardly wait to get out of here. I love Aunt Claire, she’s great, but I hate this neighborhood. I can hardly wait to see you and to be at Grandma’s to have a good night sleep in the quiet town.”
“You will. Everything is as quiet and beautiful here as when we were kids. I terribly miss Grandma, but Aunt Julia haven’t changed a bit. She’s as feisty and opinionated as ever.” He laughed, trying to trail Sofia’s mind away from being worried.
“Is it anything good?” a pleasant voice with a slight accent startled Sofia, and it took her a second to come back to reality. She looked up and saw a tall, blond, good-looking young man smiling at her. “May I?” he asked, pointing to the empty chair across the table.
“Sure,” Sofia gave him a quick smile and lowered her eyes back to her tablet. He’s hot! She thought. Oh, for Pete’s sake, Sofia, get ahold of yourself. She scolded herself. You’re acting like a lovesick puppy.
“Are you flying to Hungary?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered but didn’t look up, feeling the vibes his pleasantly deep voice triggered in her soul.
How much do these short parts tell you about the personalities of the characters?
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,
READ MY PAGES