Describing people and places

Describing people and places

One challenge we face as writers is deciding how much to give the reader. If I’m introducing a character, how much description is needed? What about backstory? The same goes for locations. How much of the surroundings should be detailed? With fantasy writing, this also applies to creatures.

I’ve tried to take the path of limiting these descriptions. As with much of my writing, this somewhat stems from my experiences with Dungeons & Dragons. As a Dungeon Master, I always preferred to leave much of that to the imagination of the players. I do the same with writing and readers.

One technique I like to employ is to give one distinct feature about each character, creature, or location. This could be a tall man, a blond-haired woman, a blue-eyed gentleman, a large wolf, a one-eyed orc, a smoky tavern, a run-down inn, or any number of things. With characters, I might do this with their personality too. A tall man who is afraid of dogs, a blond-haired woman who has a passion for gardening, or a blue-eyed gentleman who flirts with every woman he meets. This personality trait is better introduced through the story than in a description though. Show the tall man reacting to a dog barking, the blond-haired woman in her garden, and the blue-eyed gentleman making passes repeatedly.

I try to use backstory even more sparingly. I’ll often write an elaborate story for characters, but not use it in the story itself. It’s more for reference as I write. I use their history to influence their reactions to events in the story. Sometimes, this needs to be shown to the reader, but often it can be left out completely.

If this is a minor character, they might only have that one physical and personality trait come out. Characters who take on a bigger role in the story will have more of their personalities show. I don’t build much more on the physical descriptions though. Every reader is going to form their own image of the characters, as it should be. As writers, we aren’t simply showing the readers the things in our imaginations, we’re giving them a key to unlock their own imagination so they can see what we’ve created in their own way.

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One thought on “Describing people and places

  1. I actually enjoy playing with backstories a bit. In my second book I use the backstory to further develop the characters and describe things that I saw as missing previously. This adds more warmth and flavor and gives the character more dimension. I know some writers that go overboard, they backstory and add details about the tips of the shoes that have not been polished. I think it is all part of your flavor, and you will know as a storyteller how you should relay that character.

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