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Why less detail makes more believable characters

The question came up on the NaNoWriMo Forums as to whether to include a little or a lot of character description. I think less is more, and I’ll tell you why. It’s all about believability.

We’ve all seen books where characters are introduced with a lengthy, dry passage of description that sounds more like a police blotter report than anything else:

Jakob walked into the room. 6’2", burly build, wearing pin-striped Armani tailored to perfection. His shoes were black patent leather, with flawless white spats. His hair was a close-cropped buzz cut, greying, but still echoing his background as a Navy Seal. The scar running from the corner of his left eye, downward, then back to the corner of his jaw only re-enforced the image. He stuck one of his huge hands into an inner pocket of his suit, and withdrew a mirror-finish gold cigarette case. I was pretty sure he could crush a coconut in those giant mitts if he wanted to. He lit a smoke and asked, in his low smoky voice, “So. Did you bring the money?”

Boring, isn’t it? And that’s the best I can make it. Detail, detail, detail, hammering on your brain. Remember this! Remember that! Isn’t it vivid now? See see see!

The problem with this is not that any of the particular details are bad. In and of themselves, they’re fine, colorful details. Nor is the problem that the details don’t contribute to a portrayal. They do.

The problem comes in the attempt to paint a fully unambiguous picture of the person, one that leaves no flexibility whatsoever in the reader’s mind as to how you envisioned the character.

Stereotypes are good

When introducing a character, you’re usually better off sticking with broad strokes. The important thing at that point is not what color hair someone has or how tall they are, but rather, what kind of person they are. The important thing is to give the reader a framework for understanding that person and how they might act.

For that, nothing beats a stereotype.

I may get some flak for saying that, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Sure, in real life we strive not to stereotype people, because real people are infinitely varied. When we get to know any real person, we always find that there is more to them than just a stereotype.

But you’re not writing real life. You’re writing a novel. And for that, giving the reader a simple stereotype is a great strategy. In just a few words, you can establish probably 80% of what the reader needs to know. In the process, you set a framework you can later build on. Keep it short:

Jakob walked into the room. Tall. Big. I’ve known enough like him to spot the type. Military, probably ex-Navy Seal if I had to guess. Something about the way he carried himself. “So,” he barked at me, “did you bring the money?”

The stereotype is just a starting point

Just because you start with a stereotype doesn’t mean you’re stuck there. You’re free—and encouraged!—to build on the stereotype with additional telling details. The Armani suit, for example, says something about how well the guy has done since leaving the military.

You can even add even details which contradict the stereotype. But if you’ve got any of that going on, you’re strongly advised to introduce those details early. Do it before the reader becomes convinced by default that the opposite is true. For example, if Jacob was wounded in action and walks with a cane and a severe limp, you’d better tell us that up front:

Jakob walked into the room, slowly and leaning heavily on a cane. Tall. Big. I’ve known enough like him to spot the type. Military, probably ex-Navy Seal if I had to guess. Something about the way he carried himself carried through, in spite of his limp. “So,” he barked at me, “did you bring the money?”

Unless—as with any such rules of writing—it works not to. You might keep a contradictory detail secret if you’re going to spring a big twist with it later. Like, maybe instead of being wounded, Jakob was dishonorably discharged and that’s something you’re going to use to create a plot twist later.

Either way, set the stereotype quickly, as briefly as you can. Use the absolute minimum of details necessary for the scene to carry the emotional weight it needs to, and to avoid “hey, you didn’t tell me he has a limp” type plot holes.

Wait, you said it was all about believability

I did, and that’s true. Because the reason we describe characters at all is to make readers feel and believe certain things about them. Jakob, as portrayed here, is clearly intended to be an intimidating, formidable character. That’s really all we need readers to know, so they can be worried on the protagonist’s behalf. That’s it. Everything else is superfluous, and harmful to believability.

Stereotypes work precisely because they leave more to readers’ imaginations. If we give reader a “looks like an ex-Navy Seal” stereotype, they’ll get whatever mental image they get, based on all the people they’ve ever known, met, and seen in their lives. Whatever any particular reader imagines for himself or herself, will by definition be the most believable representation for that reader. A stereotype, yes, but a stereotype based on real patterns of real people. Different from yours, maybe, but 100% believable to the reader.

Less is more in character descriptions: use stereotypes to create believability; details to create dimensionality.

Use the stereotype to your advantage

A stereotype brings to a wealth of details to the reader’s mind for free, at absolutely zero additional word count. Those details exist, and where they are predictable you can use them to your benefit.

Let’s take eye color as an example. In the NaNoWriMo novel I’m writing this month, I have a young woman of Cuban/Hispanic descent. The reader got that stereotype in the first scene when we met her. Much later, in the first-kiss scene between her and my MC, the stereotype supplied a detail I could work with to flesh out the moment between the characters. Here, they’re sitting on a couch, leaning ever closer to each other:

She’s looking right in my eyes, and we’re so close I can see her eyes aren’t pure black. There’s tiny little dark brown flecks in them.

This works because I can predict with almost 100% certainty that any random reader’s “mid-20s, Cuban/Hispanic woman” stereotype is going to have dark eyes. So when I refer to her eyes as being dark—something that was never mentioned explicitly in her original description—I reward readers by re-enforcing the detail they imagined for themselves. It’s a subtle way of telling them “yes, you have envisioned this character the right way,” and bam! the reader’s belief in the character is cemented forever.

All I have to do is not contradict the stereotype too much. I build on the stereotype, rather than contravening it radically. If, in that scene, I had suddenly said she had piercing blue eyes or something, that would make readers hate me for being a total idiot. And they’d be right to do so; the detail just wouldn’t fit.

Stereotypes create belief; details create dimension

You get a reader’s deep buy-in, their suspension of disbelief, from tapping into the reader’s mental stereotypes and forcing them to imagine the details. And you do that by giving only the minimum of detail necessary to guide the reader to the correct, story-relevant, stereotype.

You get dimensionality, differentiation from the stereotype, by carefully layering small additional details on top of the stereotype, like putting brown flecks in a woman’s black eyes.

Less is More

Less is more because when you toss in too much detail, you’re telling your readers how to envision the character, rather than showing your readers how to envision the character for themselves. That’s a guaranteed losing game, because you’ll never—and I do mean never—be able to tell them anything that’s as convincing and believable as what you can lead them to invent on their own.

All the stereotype does is let you control, limit, and predict what they’re going to invent, so you can keep their imagination in line with your story.

November 17, 2010 00:22 UTC

Tags: character, description, details, stereotypes, NaNoWriMo

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