Sunday, October 16, 2011

Character descriptions

Some writers spend a lot of time describing their characters and it isn't anything new. Take for instance the first page of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. He starts right off with long descriptions of the first two characters as follows:

"One of them was a young fellow of about twenty-seven, not tall, with black curling hair, and small, grey, fiery eyes.  His nose was broad and flat, and he had high cheek bones; his thin lips were constantly compressed into an impudent, ironical--it might almost be called a malicious--smile; but his forehead was high and well formed, and atoned for a good deal of the ugliness of the lower part of his face. A special feature of this physiognomy was its death-like pallor, which gave to the whole man an indescribably emaciated appearance in spite of his hard look, and at the same time a sort of passionate and suffering expression which did not harmonize with his impudent, sarcastic smile and keen, self-satisfied bearing. He wore a large fur--or rather astrachan--overcoat, which had kept him warm all night, while his neighbour had been obliged to bear the full severity of a Russian November night entirely unprepared. His wide, sleeveless mantle with a large cape to it--the sort of cloak one sees upoon travellers during the winter months in Switzerland or North Italy--was by no means adapted to the long cold journey through Russia, from Eydkuhnen to St. Petersburg.

"The wearer of this cloak was a young fellow, also of about twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age, slightly above the middle height, very fair, with a thin, pointed and very light coloured beard; his eyes were large and blue, and had an intent look aobut them, yet that heavy expression wihich some peoplle affirm to be a peculiarity as well as eveidence, of an epileptic subject. His face was decidedly a pleasant one for all that; refined, but quite colourless, except for the circumstance that at this moment it was blue with cold. He held a bundle made up on an old faded slk handkerchief that apparently contained all his travelling wardrobe, and wore thick shoes and gaiters, his whole appearance being very un-Russian.

"His black-haired neighbour inspected these peculiarities, having nothing better to do, and at length remarked, with that rude enjoyment of the discomforts of others which the common classes so often show: (etc., etc.)"

Since beginning my writing "career" (he says with a dirty little grin or more like a smirk), I never paid much attention to character description, even though I was instructed in a class to write on a piece of paper all the various traits and physical characteristics, mannerisms, etc., of each character, and now ten years later I still haven't paid too much attention to character, and I haven't written on a piece of paper or anything else any of these things. The above excerpt clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of doing this, even though it is a fairly long-winded exposition, at least the first one is and shows me that more attention to character can make (or break) a story in some instances.

A fellow blogger, Charles Gramlich at has written about character descriptions more than once on his Razored Zen blog and I owe him one for pointing out the usefulness of description when bringing characters to life. I'll have to be more cognizant of this in my own writing.

NOTE: The excerpt is in the public domain and was copied from the Project Gutenberg site. 


  1. As a writer and as a reader, I'm happy with a few descriptive cues that let a person fill in the blanks. But there's a lot of highly detailed physical description in the early westerns I'm reading. I get the impression that they are meant to reveal the essential character of the person described - a wide forehead for instance seems to be a sign of a kind of authority. Eyes can indicate clarity or lack of it, and so on.

    It has made me wonder if our forebears used to "read" faces this way or whether it was just a convention of writers at the time.

  2. I think the tradition was for greater character description in the past. I like it but it seems modern audiences want less of it. I always have to do it for myself anyway so I can get to know the character well. Thanks for the plug. :)

  3. I'd sooner be drip-fed those details as and when I need to know, rather than be confronted with an information dump.

  4. Ron, these characteristics of the face may be related to phrenology and the descriptions that come out of that. It was popular in the 19th century and some western writers may have used it in as a basis for their character descriptions.

    Charles, its a good way to become acquainted with the characters. I just go by seat of the pants.

    Valance, in most cases, I would too, but sometimes a lengthy one can add more to the story.