When I’m reading a novel, I personally hate character descriptions that are “clumped”–the kind that go on too long when they first introduce the character. You probably know the type; there’s almost a whole page dedicated to how shockingly beautiful the heroine is when you first meet her, or how devastatingly handsome the villain is despite his horrible ways. Bo-ring.
Here’s an example I crafted of “clumpy” character description:
Boring Character Description
“In the doorway stood Jean. She was about 41, with curling red hair down to her mid-back, porcelain skin with ruddy patches on the cheeks, and eyes that seemed to be nearly silver. If I had to guess, I’d say she wore a 36DD bra, had no waist to speak of, and hips that nearly took up the whole doorway space. Aside from the expensive, deep green blouse she wore, the rest of her clothing looked worn; even her shoes looked too scuffed to be new. Her rounded belly, not of pregnancy but of years not spent on the treadmill, became more obvious as she moved into the room. If she had once been beautiful, the bloom was rapidly fading.”
While this does make a great character sketch of “Jean”, it’s not very interesting. The story stops while this snapshot in words is taken; additionally, the character sketch is almost too detailed. Prime example of a “too-detailed” sketch: the “36DD bra” and the age of “41” detail, which is something I’ve actually seen done in many amateur stories. Like anybody can tell what size bra a girl wears or exactly how old she is by just looking at her! It’s like you’re reading a police report on somebody’s description rather than a story.
When you do a detailed character description like this, especially at the beginning of a story where it’s the first appearance of the character, it tends to slow down the storytelling, and many readers (like me) will want to skip over it. Nothing’s happening to advance the story in there, so why bother reading it?
Instead of clumping all my character description into one paragraph, I like to space it out across several story-moving sentences, slowly weaving a picture of the character while describing him/her through his/her actions.
I reworked my earlier example into the following sample, below:
Hopefully Not-So-Boring Character Description
“Jean appeared in the doorway just then, her generous hips grazing the doorjamb as she moved through. ‘What are y’all even talkin’ about?’ she said, defiantly placing a large hand on one hip. ‘You think I’m deaf in there, you don’t think I’m hearin’ you talkin’ junk ’bout my fam’ly members?’ For a moment, her anger seemed to spark along her tumble of red curls, and her pale, gently-lined skin flushed only on the cheeks in unbecoming spots. ‘I’m in there cookin’ supper an’ all I can hear is this mess, on a holiday, no less!’ Her large bosom, even constrained as it was underneath the silky green blouse, quivered with the force of her words and feelings. ‘If that’s what you think about my fam’ly, you can just git out, for all’s I care. Why should I bother feedin’ you when you’re talkin’ trash, in MY house?’
No one could say anything against her, not with her gray eyes flashing an unsettling silver, not with her words condemning them. Already a statuesque woman, she seemed to stand even taller in her frustration, and everyone was too intimidated to speak.”
For me, this character description works better because the story continues to move along–we get hints of what “Jean” looks like, especially in anger, and we also get the reasons why she’s angry through the dialogue she has. It feels like a much more active scene, a better emotional scene, not just a paragraph-long, flat painting of a character.
Your Opinion: Which is Better?
Depending on your personal opinion, you might like the first example better than the second, or vice versa. Which do you think is more interesting to read? Which provides a better character description? Is neither particularly interesting to read, for that matter? (That would be a sad result, considering I wrote both, but… LOL)