Dangers of over-describing

imagesAt a recent literary conference, a speaker was warning of “drivers license descriptions.” That is, the character appears on the scene trailing specifics: “Tommy Lengley, 6’1″, blonde, tanned, well-built, with a faint scar on his left cheek . . . ” Which put me to wondering: do we really know what Elizabeth Bennett looked like? Thinking back to recent novels I admired, I remember intense connection to the character without necessarily having the tools to identify that character in a line-up.

Or, if a physical quality is necessary, rather than the opening catalog, couldn’t the salient quality be demonstrated? The tall guy bumps his head in a doorway; the scar gets carefully camouflaged every morning; at every personal crisis, our hero bolts to the gym for hours. And so forth. If nothing else, these descriptions slow down the action, particularly in a short story, when you have to get the plot engine revved right away.

Another issue: In teaching college fiction classes, I was so, so tired of all the blonde/chestnut/auburn/ebony-haired, perfectly coiffed, flawlessly-skinned, wholly toned heroines I was given, all with fine careers, many friends, and loving families. Pretty much makes the average reader hate these ladies before they even open their mouths. Not that every character has to be a monster, but still, you do want some identification with your characters and most of us aren’t cover girl/boy material.

There are plenty of templates for “getting to know your character” and constant advice to know what your character keeps in his/her pocket. And it’s good. The writer does need to know these things, but perhaps more to shape what the character does than to reel it out when the character walks on stage.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the morning and I welcome commentary.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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“Absorbing and layered with rich historical details, in Under the Same Blue Sky, Schoenewaldt weaves a tender and at times, heartbreaking story about German-Americans during World War I. With remarkable compassion, the author skillfully portrays conflicted loyalties, the search for belonging, the cruelty of war, and the resilience of the human spirit.”—Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree

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