Last time we discussed “the un-set scene”—when a scene is unclear because the author has failed to establish a minimum level of basic details about the setting. Today, we’ll cover a similar problem that can arise with characters: “the unclear character.”
Not all characters will require the same amount of description—sometimes a very basic, even vague, description will suffice, while other times a more thorough amount of detail will be necessary. Tolkien described most of his characters, such as Gandalf and the hobbits, with great precision. Dan Wells, on the other hand, has pointed out that he wrote several books starring his character John Wayne Cleaver without ever telling us what color John’s hair was.
An excellent example of these opposing situations can be found in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Her descriptions of her male lead and love interest, Edward, are extremely detailed, which is appropriate in a romance novel aimed at teenage girls. Her descriptions of her protagonist Bella, on the other hand, are generally vague; this allows readers to picture the details of Bella’s appearance however they like, which in turn allows Bella to serve as an audience self-insertion avatar, increasing readers’ involvement in the story and romance.
No matter how much or how little you choose to describe your characters, there are a few basic details that your audience will need to clearly picture your narrative:
|Pictured: characters without these basic, |
Gender: Gender is one of the most basic elements that people use to categorize one another. Whether the gender of your characters is male, female, or something else, it will be helpful to your audience if they know where your characters fit along that spectrum. You don’t want your audience to be picturing a character of one gender only to discover later that they were completely wrong.
Age: Not everyone acts their age. Some children are unusually mature, while a disturbing amount of adults never quite seem to grow out teenage behavior. This is part of the reason that it is important to make clear what the ages of your characters are early on. I’ve read many stories where the protagonist’s behavior led me to believe that they were a child, only for me to discover later that they were supposed to be an adult.
Unusual aspects of appearance: I once read a story written in third-person limited perspective from the point of view of an old man. It was four pages before the author mentioned, out of nowhere, that the old man had a peg leg. That’s the sort of thing that would be a large part of a person’s life, don’t you think? It’s the sort of thing that should be apparent from very early on in the story. Don’t drop major details about a character’s appearance late in the story.
Species: This is basically the same as "unusual aspects of appearance," but it's worthy of extra note. If a character is not a human being, you should generally make that clear up front.
That’s pretty much it. You can give more detail, of course (and usually you should), but you shouldn’t generally give less than this.
Note: These rules apply particularly to perspective characters. If we’re in a character’s head, we should know what they know, including details about themselves. If you want to hide details about a non-perspective character for later on, however, you can usually do so.