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Using Limited character description


One writing concept I've always had trouble wrapping my head around is "how much is too little or too much description?"

I know it's bad writing to go over every minute detail of an object or location, but sometimes I struggle with whether or not I'm not giving enough detail. The problem tends to happen a lot is character description and the idea of how much should be necessary to describe the character without getting to the point where you're beating the reader over the head with a wall of words, or you're giving way too little description that leaves them lost.

How do you guys go about dealing with this?


Myth Weaver
Sadly, this is more of an art than a science as well.

For myself, I am somewhat minimalist. I try to paint enough of the scene that it is not white space, but I dont dwell on things that dont matter to the characters. In my world, the trees are both purple and green, and about evenly so. To a reader, this may seem strange, to the characters, its just everyday life. So they dont give it any special notice and it does not come up much.

I try to use what I call the rule of three, which is three descriptive words and not more. And I try not to annoy the reader describing things they would already know anyway, like what a mountain, or a river looks like. Unless there is something unusual, I dont dwell.

With characters, I do describe them in a small amount of detail, but after a while even that stops. I have not mentioned the color of their hair in quite a long time.

I do try to immerse, so I look for things that matter or are significant. Like saying a cup is stone or wood and not made of gold, to say something about the people and what they have.

I know many others are not like this, and will describe in much more detail. For me, I tend to skip most of it while reading, so it is not for me.


I find that 'less than you think you'll need' is a decent rule of thumb. Problem is that as the writer you've got a clear mental image in mind so yeah, you want to go into depth, but if you give them a chance then the readers will fill in the details on their own and it'd be a waste to not take advantage of that.
I’m learning this at moment whilst writing, but I’d rather go in being very descriptive and then I can always go back and edit and make more considered choices.

Mad Swede

Well, I was always taught that you should add as much background detail and description as neccessary to explain the situation. Admittedly this was in the context of writing military orders, but my experience as an author is that it applies to fiction as well. So I tend to think of it in terms of what the characters are seeing and doing. So if one character is coing up to the market square and takes a look around, then you can describe the scene - as seen by them. That also lets you hide details as required - it might only be a quick look around so the character might miss or disregard something which turns out to be important later. As for what characters look like, I tend to use scenes where characters meet for the first time or where a character is thinking about someone they're talking to or talking about as a reason to describe that someone's appearance. In these ways the descriptions become part of the flow of the story rather than being a wall of text which simply stops the action. The level of detail you need varies, and I tend to build up the descriptions of people and places over several scenes so that the reader too gains a gradual picture of people and events.


Myth Weaver
I used to write way too much detail, in some people's opinion anyhow, but I'm more prone now to too little. With characters, I prefer minimalist. Broad strokes and let the reader's imagination add what they like. Maybe add that one special thing that you can use as a reminder to the reader of who they are. The give them a limp theory.

Settings, again, I'm more minimalist. Give the reader dinner, not the list of ingredients. For my tastes, too many epic fantasy books way the hell overboard with the ingredients even when I love the books.


toujours gai, archie
There aren't rules (well, you can find them, but ignore them). There are, however, some reference points, in no order of importance

First, the senses. It's an easy checklist and you don't have to hit them all, but if you leave out, do so on purpose.

Second, POV. In first person or close third, you as author need to be right at the MC's shoulder. What do they see? What do they smell? What are they expecting to see (hear,smell,etc) versus what they actually see? It's all about them. If you need a panorama, then stick them on a building or hilltop because it's always and only what they see.

With other POVs it gets tricky. See comments from others above; it really is art.

Third, genre. With mysteries, for example, it's very much about what is not described. With historical romance, you'll want details.

No one answer works for all.


I love this question. I have been trying to use less detail to make my characters more relatable - ie I want each reader to create their own version of the character. I think this also may be a way of getting around a potential lack of diverse characters? That's a whole other forum...


Myth Weaver
Cant we just use a mirror?

For characters, I do tend to describe them as they enter the story, but not in great detail, maybe just a few features I will return at times to remind readers. The longer the character is in the story, the more likely they will get more fleshed out descriptions as the story goes on. But, only when it matters, or someone would notice. If my MC walked up to a goblin and an ogre, I think they would notice, and I would have to describe them, but I would draw attention to what was more noticeable about them. So, I might not mention that the ogre had a ring through is eyebrow, but I would say he was four times bigger than the goblin. And probably mention their brawn, as their smashing ability may come into play as well.

My cast is not diverse, least until they explore the world a bit. I have a clear vision of them, and they are clearly from a homogenous culture. The world is not integrated. Cest la Vie.

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
I tend to be a little light on description, mostly focusing on features that cause a character to stand out. This info is getting added onto as we go along, so as the story progresses we get clearer visions of each.
There is only personal preference regarding this. Some people like lots, some people like less description. How much you use is very much part of your writer voice. It's part of what makes your writing uniquely you.

Something to keep in mind is that it's almost always better to use a few well chosen details over a lot of vague ones. Unless you purposefully want the POV character being vague about something, go for specific details. So the innkeeper isn't fat (which is vague), he has a belly that would fit a beer barrel (or whatever). I think Brandon Sanderson's explanation of the Pyramid of Abstraction gives a good explanation of this:

Another trick you can use is a specific detail combined with repetition to both give the character some personality and to help the reader remember who it is and what he looks like. J.K. Rowling does this a lot in Harry Potter. Most of the characters will have a few specific details attached to them which come up over and over again. You'll always see a mention to Dumbledoor's half-moon spectacles for instance when he's described.

It's much stronger this way, because readers tend to forget details after a few pages, especially if there are lots of them. If something comes up over and over again, it will cement it in the reader's brain.