NVDT #51 – You know, brownish hair, about so tall, energetic…

The graphic is from one of JMW Turner’s sketchbooks. You could tell people it’s a Louisiana swamp, Grand Teton Lake or somewhere in the Alps and they’d go, “Well, yeah. Okay.”

The prompt – Do you draw your main characters so that a forensic sketch artist could put them on the cover, or do they belong to the reader?


Not principal characters, not even more well-drawn peripheral characters. There should be enough information to evoke an image from imagination or exposure in the reader and no more.

I’ve been taking my time getting through Hiaasen’s 2016 Razor Girl, wherein the eponymous character is never detailed. We build what she might look like out of other character’s reactions to her (male and female), suggestions as to size, how she walks, how she talks, how she behaves. But not once does Hiaasen stake out several paragraphs to define her.

I realize description is a given in certain fantasy/Syfy/romance/dystopian genres. I mean dirty angel wings, a lizard tail and feet like a 400-pound duck, or six-two, the color of expensive chocolate, ripped, six-pack abs and Dolly Parton’s hair are iceberg quality in that stuff. For me? That’s plenty. For some who require detailed, in-depth physical descriptions, it is not. Know your audience.

I think it is important that we convey enough to make sure the reader gets it, but no more. In the short story Octopus the story lets us know, through the story, the main character is a 22-year-old professional ballet dancer with an ankle problem. There are word drop descriptions of flexibility and this –

Jackson knelt, thighs wailing, in front of the dead ballerina doll’s color of a slightly over baked biscuit ballet bun.

Now we know what color her hair is, sort of, depending on your version of a slightly overcooked biscuit. Anyone who has seen or known or been or even been around a ballet dancer, or taken or had a child take ballet class or watched the Nutcracker is perfectly capable of rolling their own Logan Bevan-Burns. I believe it’s my job to offer the reader enough to put the characters up on the big screen in their heads, and an opportunity to hang out with their version of her. No two experiences are the same if I keep my writerly self out of the way.

Point – in Writerly Concerns #22 I addressed authenticity. You can read the whole thing, or the Readers Digest version below –

Authenticity does not require 200 pages of Irvine Welsh’s phonetic Scotts, or an accurate down to the nails in the shutters description of a side street in the Bahamas or a page and a half of verdant pastures or a horticulturist’s coffee-table book version of Louisiana garden and potted plant life. Or $20k worth of mics and preamps. Authenticity is a few locations, a few props, carried by the story. All the set decoration and character description in the world isn’t the story. Make me believe the characters and their stories without gumming up getting them around, dressing them up and putting them somewhere. Authenticity is the story.

Takeaway – For me. When I sent out betas of The Hot Girl (parked for edits and a new title) I asked for pictures of what the crew thought she looked like. No two were the same. Even with the description of unruly, dark auburn hair (but then maybe I’d edited that out), I got blondes, brunettes, redheads, all attractive, wholesome, cheerleader-y, class president types. Which she was, only with attitude. Someone we all know, or knew. To a person, all the betas populated the story with their own version of Deanna Collings visuals. Many of them were teachers who said,  “I see her every year. All the promise and brains and idealism and I pray she makes it.” Same story, same girl, a dozen different physical representations. As Deanna would say, “I’m like twelve different people, Jackson. How cool is that?”

That’s exactly what I’m after. A story, a journey, that belongs to the people who read it.

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Published by

Phil Huston


10 thoughts on “NVDT #51 – You know, brownish hair, about so tall, energetic…”

    1. !! Croce was a real storyteller and the soundtrack to a long six months of my life. Songs are often the best place to find those things because you gotta hit it and get on with it. There are any number of mini novels out there masquerading as 3:05 pop songs.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t begin to ‘see’ what a character looks like until I begin to understand their personality. (And there’s a turtle in there, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes to all of this. I’ve read books where every inch of the protagonist is described. Hair color, pony tail or not, bangs or not, color of shirt or dress, jeans or cords, manicured nails or bitten, freckles or not, inked or not inked, mole on left cheek or right, (butt or face.) Of course you know what i mean. I’m long winded just talking about it. Many unnecessary words..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, some of those, spaced out (no, not that way) throughout a tome would be okay. And maybe spread out amongst the crew. too much is too much. Did you hit on the Don’t Trip post. We know all about her with just a line of info.

      Liked by 1 person

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