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Is the Devil in the Details?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A somewhat controversial topic has been raised on one of my writers’ loops: the poster posed the question of whether giving specific descriptions of characters’ clothing and age is a convention of the romance genre, stating that she finds it annoying to have to read what color someone’s sweater is, and that a character’s specific age isn’t important unless it’s significant to the plot (i.e., a May-December romance). Several other people responded in agreement. Here’s what I said:

I guess because I’m a visually oriented person, I prefer to have more concrete descriptions of what people are wearing and what they look like. As an author, I have to know what my characters are wearing whenever they walk into the scene. Do I always mention it? No. But the specific details of what someone is wearing can say a lot about the character and who they are. A man who is almost never seen out of a full suit—designer, tailored for a custom fit—is different from a man who wears shapeless polos and worn-in jeans. Plus there’s the emotional (and sometimes physical) reaction we have when we see what someone’s wearing: we think he’s sexy or dignified or wealthy or poor or sloppy or clueless or nerdy or whatever. We all judge those around us not just by what they look like physically, but by the clothes they choose to wear—even if we’re not aware that we’re making those judgments—and it affects how we interact with people sometimes. That’s why I include descriptions of clothing in my writing, and why I prefer reading authors who do the same.

I also want to know how old the characters are—the exact age of the hero/heroine and approximate ages of those people around them. Age, like clothing, is a way of giving the reader a wealth of subconscious information about the character without having to spell it out. A thirty-eight-year-old is going to have a totally different outlook on life than a twenty-eight-year-old or an eighteen-year-old. From whom would you be more likely to seek advice on which investments to make in your 401k? On where the swinging place is to meet other young professionals? On what is of interest to today’s college student? Having the POV character estimate the age of someone they don’t know—whether they appear around the same age, much older, much younger—allows the reader to make certain assumptions about the secondary character along these same lines.

Now, all that said, I will say that I DO NOT believe that every character who walks into the scene needs to have a name, full physical description, and backstory, as I just suffered through in Julie Garwood’s latest, Shadow Music. She had characters crawling out of the woodwork, and then, after a paragraph or two, never showing up again. So there is an art to learning how much description is enough.

I touched on this subject in the Showing vs. Telling series (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and In the Eye of the Beholder) with examples from different authors who have woven the description of the character’s clothing in so that it becomes a description of the character. When used right, specific details of what the character chooses to wear can help set the scene, create a certain tone or mood surrounding the character, and give subconscious clues to who the character is.

What do you think? Do you like specific descriptions? I’m not talking about over descriptions, where each character’s outfit has to be described down to the last detail every time they walk on stage, but a few well-placed descriptions here and there.

  1. Thursday, February 14, 2008 10:25 am

    As long as the description is organic to the story and doesn’t stand out like a police dossier, I like to know how old people are and a little about what they’re wearing and what it says about the character.


  2. Thursday, February 14, 2008 11:29 am

    I like it sparse, unless it’s important to the story. The part of reading I enjoy is using my imagination, so if the author gives a description of the character that isn’t compatible with how I’ve already “seen” this person, it throws me every time it’s mentioned. Plus, if there’s a ton of physical description, I spend too much time trying to see it the author’s way and it pulls me from the story. I think for me, a few well-placed descriptions is plenty. You’re right about the subtlties of age, etc., to influence the subconscious.


  3. Thursday, February 14, 2008 12:34 pm

    I do like descriptions, and I certainly want to have at least a close idea of the ages of each character. One of my favorite writers, Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter writes character descriptions in such a way that you know a great deal about the character’s personality and mindset in just a few lines, as well as their clothes, station in life, and physical appearance. Check out one of her Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries, for an example. It helps that Cafael, her POV character, is a natural close observer of his fellow man, so these descriptions aren’t intrusive. They’re what Cadfael would be noticing, and no more.

    So it comes down to your POV character. What would she/he notice? Let the description be more than static reporting. Let it say something about the one who is noticing and describing (what catches her eye? what’s important to her? what does she obsess about? Hair, shoes, eyes, the tightness of her mistress’s lips?), or let it say something about the one being noticed. Preferably, both.


  4. Friday, February 15, 2008 12:49 pm

    I like them too but only as long as they’re given to me through the POV character, rather than as a commercial break.


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