The Subtle Art of Character Description

Character description is one of those things that is an absolute must. It doesn’t matter whether that character is a person, an animal, an automobile or a place. There must be something that allows the reader to create an image in their head so they can visualize whatever is happening in the story that the author decided to unleash on the world.

Depending on the character it could be a short narrative description: A tall man in an overcoat brushed by Jamie, muttering as he fumbled with the stack of papers he carried.

Or a comment made by another character: “Would you look at her dress?!” exclaimed Gina. “Why would anyone wear a pink strapless with argyle knee-highs?”

There may be a time and place where a long description is needed. But we have to be careful with lengthy exposition, especially in fiction. Nothing kills a reader’s desire to READ faster than the narrator droning on without movement. We purchase novels because we want to enjoy them. If we wanted to read a textbook on nuclear physics, we would buy one instead of picking up Thunderball. (2 atomic bombs get hijacked and held for ransom, a city in danger — the potential for nuclear physics in action.) The same goes for the characters themselves. We don’t need to know every last detail, every single like or dislike, every teeny tiny thought that goes through the character’s head. Believe in the reader. Give them just enough and then allow them to do their job, which is to create and fill in the gaps.

With that in mind, I want to chat about Donald Merwin Elbert for a moment. Those who have read The Stand will know him better as the Trashcan Man, one of Randall Flagg’s lieutenants, and a man who is about 23 cents short of a dollar in the sanity department. The reader first meets him in Chapter 34. Chapter 34 is twelve pages dedicated to getting to know Trash. But at no point does Stephen King go into any real physical detail about him. In fact, King went into more detail on Donald’s sandwich than his physical attributes. The only things we find out are that his eyes are blue and his hair is long enough to hang down onto his forehead. The rest is about his past and about what he was in the process of doing the day he turned Powtanville into a fireball. The reader comes out of that chapter knowing that Donald exists, and curiously has also formed a partial image of him in their mind without any solid physical details.

We don’t run into Trashcan Man again until about 274 pages later in Chapter 48. By that point the reader is well into the meat of the story. It’s possible they’ve almost forgotten about poor old Donald. But not for long. Donald comes rushing back with a vengeance. And Mr. King lays it all out before the reader. Donald has made it from a little town in Indiana to within a day’s distance of Las Vegas. And we see first hand what that does to a man physically after the world has more or less shut down. Meaning no disrespect or copyright infringement, I’d like to share what I feel is one of the best physical character descriptions ever written:

He stood, swaying in his rags, looking down at Cibola, the City that is Promised, the City of Dreams. He was a wreck. The wrist that he had broken when he leaped the railing of the stairway bolted to the Cheery Oil tank had not healed right, and that wrist was a grotesque lump wrapped in a dirty, unraveling Ace bandage. All the bones in the fingers of that hand had pulled up somehow, turning the hand into a Quasimodo claw. His left arm was a slowly healing mass of burn tissue from elbow to shoulder. It no longer smelled bad and suppurated, but the new flesh was hairless and pink, like the skin of a cheap doll. His grinning, mad face was sunburned, peeling, scruffy-bearded, and covered with scabs from the header he had taken when the front wheel of his bike had parted company from the frame. He wore a faded blue J.C. Penney workshirt that was marked with expanding rings of sweatstain and a dirty pair of corduroy trousers. His pack, which had been new not so long ago, had now taken on the style and substance of its owner — one strap had broken, Trash had knotted it as best he could, and the pack now hung askew on his back like a shutter on a haunted house. It was dusty, its creases filled with desert sand. On his feet were Keds now bound together with hanks of twine, and from them his scratched and sand-chafed ankles rose innocent of socks.

In three-fourths of a page we now know not only what this new version of the Trashcan Man looks like, but we know that he has been through hell and back. We may not know the details of that journey right off, but we can extrapolate quite a bit from the description. We know that he’s driven. We know that he’s resourceful. We know that he’s a survivor. And suddenly we know that he is Someone in this novel. And yes, that capital S is there for a reason. We haven’t seen a hair of his head for 274 pages and King hits the reader with that? No author is going to dedicate a block of description with that much punch to a character that plays a small part in the story.

This is one of those literary moments where the author flashes the corner of that Ace of Spades hidden inside his sleeve.

Will every novel benefit from laying out a description like that? Not necessarily. But it’s not the words that are all that important here. It’s what they say. What image do they convey to the reader. What do they foretell? What do they tell the reader about the character’s past, recent or ancient? Do they move the story along?

We don’t want to describe something just to describe it. We don’t need to waste page space or the reader’s time with things that don’t matter. If it’s not moving the story in one direction or another, then it’s not necessary. Trashcan Man is one of the only characters that receives this level of treatment in a novel that has characters falling out of the pages. Stephen King wanted the reader to know Donald Merwin Elbert, and he wanted them to remember him. In hindsight it was a subtle yet brilliant piece of foreshadowing wrapped in description.

Know the characters that you create. Know where they fit. Then let the storyline define how much you need to tell the reader and how much you should let the reader create on their own. We have to remember that our job as storytellers is to create the world and populate it. Guide it. But it’s up to the reader to flesh it out and give it color.

After all, isn’t that half the fun of reading?

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Andre Breillatt

Andre Breillatt

Writer, business consultant, traveler, lover of cats