This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, a publication.

The other day, I was reading a novel written by an indie author. Halfway through the second chapter, my attention started to wander. The author spent roughly 800 words describing what three characters look like in ways that were mostly irrelevant and uninteresting. (800 words is half of this article.) I don’t want to throw the author under the bus, so I won’t quote from the book, but trust me, it was overkill. What’s worse is that this indie author isn’t an unknown novice—they’re pretty popular.

When talking about the fiction writing process, I sometimes like to use terms you typically hear from painters and illustrators, not writers. For example, when deciding how much detail to use in describing a person, location, or event, I ask myself: “Should I do this in pencil, ink, or color?”

This article will mostly focus on character descriptions, but at the end I’ll touch on ways to apply the same technique to locations, items, and events as well.

Writing Characters in Pencil

I generally describe characters at a “pencil” level of detail, meaning I give little or no information about what they look like—because their physical appearance almost never matters. Characters’ words and actions drive the story, not their height, face shape, or eye color.

To create a “pencil sketch” of the character, I describe the impression that they create in other characters and let the reader’s brain ink and color its own portrait, like so:

“Her expectant gaze was so intense that he reflexively took a step backward. She stood with her hands loosely on her hips in a pose of relaxed authority, unconcerned about the lock of hair covering her right eye. She was unconcerned about everything except the answer to her question.”

Apart from the fact that she’s not bald or eyeless, you know nothing about what this character looks like, but you know something about her demeanor. She’s apparently in charge of this situation, and she’s standing in a typically masculine pose, so she’s likely in a role or position usually filled by men. You probably pictured her as taller than average, in good shape, and wearing some kind of no-nonsense outfit. You didn’t consciously realize that you were filling in my pencil sketch with your own ink and colors, but you were. I could write an entire book about her without writing a single word about her appearance, content to let you build your own image of what she looks like. Often, this is the best approach to character description.

Based on some informal tests I’ve run, describing characters in pencil is highly effective. I once wrote a long story, about 15,000 words, and gave it to ten different test readers. When they were done, I asked for their feedback and posed a few specific questions, one of which was: “What does the main character look like?”

Nine of the ten readers gave me a detailed description—and all nine of those descriptions were different. Only the tenth reader paused and said, “Now that I think about it, I don’t think you ever described him, but I created my own picture.” All ten readers painted their own portraits based on the character’s words and actions, and nine of them did it so vividly that they were convinced I’d described his physical characteristics at some point. Only after going back to check did they realize I’d never said a word about his appearance.

Writing Characters in Ink

To write a character in ink as opposed to pencil, I tell you something about their physical appearance, but I do so in a way that uses their physical characteristics to give you information about their character or motives. Here’s an example of how one of my favorite authors does this:

“He looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the indeterminate stage of youth. . . His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout.”

—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Here, Rand specifies some of this man’s features and body language, but she does so as a way of telling you who he is, not merely what he looks like. The ink approach is more flexible than pencil or color in that there are a few reasons you might want to use it. It works well when:

  • You want to emphasize a connection between physical attributes and a character’s moral code, mindset, or attitude (“His brow was permanently furrowed from decades of condescending frowns”)
  • The character’s appearance has some relevance to the plot (for example, a scar or tattoo that makes it hard for a character to hide their identity, or a 90-pound woman falls and a 250-pound man catches her; that’s not hard to believe)
  • You’re sentimentally attached to a character’s appearance and you want the reader to picture the character in roughly the same way (just be sure to keep the description brief)

Writing Characters in Color

To write a character in color is to take the ink approach with the addition of more information about their physical appearance. Done thoughtfully and with a specific purpose in mind, this can be wonderfully effective. Just don’t feel like you always have to describe what everyone looks like in great detail.

Here’s a good example:

“He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. As for his clothes – just rags, that was all. He had one ankle resting on t’other knee; the boot on that foot was busted, and two of his toes stuck through, and he worked them now and then. His hat was laying on the floor – an old black slouch with the top caved in, like a lid.”

—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I say that this example of a color portrait is good because I don’t need to explain it to you. You have a pretty good sense of what this man is like and of how you ought to feel about him. Again, Twain isn’t telling us what this character looks like just so we know what he looks like. His features, posture, hygiene, and clothing all tell us something about what sort of person he is.

I advise caution when writing characters in color, at least until you’ve had some practice reading long descriptions of characters and discerning what makes them good or bad reading. It’s easy to get carried away with long descriptions that don’t particularly help the reader understand the character or their place in the story.

In short, writing in color is a solid choice when you’re sure that the entire description helps the reader understand who the character is, not merely what they look like. In this regard, the governing principle is the same as it is for characters described in pencil or ink.

Other Uses for this Technique

One reason the pencil/ink/color framework is useful is that it can be applied to anything you describe in fiction, including places, events, and items. The same basic question applies: What is most important for the reader to know at this point in the story, and what level of description is required to show it to them?

I’ve read far too many novels in which a character spends an entire paragraph moving from one room to another. In most cases, “she went to the kitchen” is all you need to say. Unless her journey from the office to the kitchen is somehow important, we don’t need to know all the rooms she passed through along the way.

Let’s say the rooms she passes through are important. How, and why? Perhaps she passes through a hallway that has a picture hanging on the wall, and she deliberately avoids looking at the picture. Now the reader is wondering why. Who or what is in the picture, and why doesn’t she want to look at it? Is it a painful memory? A reminder of some sort of bittersweet victory? This could be a way of describing the house (and the character) at the ink level.

Now imagine that, much later in the story, she passes through the same hallway, but this time, she stops, turns, looks directly at the picture, and has several paragraphs of thoughts that show she’s grown in some way. Perhaps this is the first time the reader knows what the picture shows—to reveal this earlier would have given away too much, too soon. She’s conquered the painful memory, not by suppressing it, but by learning something from it so that she can now look at the picture with only a mild sting of sadness—or even hope—instead of crushing pain.

That could be a great way to write in color about a picture in a hallway.

As a fiction writer, you’re constantly faced with choices about which words to use, and how many. I think the master question should always be the one I mentioned earlier: What is most important for the reader to know at this point in the story, and what level of description is required to show it to them?

Or, to paraphrase a writer whose identity I’ve forgotten: “Use exactly as many words as necessary and then stop writing.”